Reviewed by Jenny Seymour
Premiered in 1912, I was keen to see how Rutherford and Son would be relevant in 2019, over 100 years later. I thought it would be like a history lesson, with old-fashioned dialogue, but whilst this was so to a certain degree, it is so cleverly written and involves some great comedic lines amidst the stoic characters from the early 20th century. As a female playwright in the early 1900s Githa Sowerby should be recognised for her masterful writing that can span generations, but you would be forgiven for not recognising that this was written by a woman, given the one-line dismissives of the female role.
Before I go any further, you should know that this is a long play! The 1st act is 1 hour and 40 minutes long and the 2nd act is 50 minutes. I didn’t actually notice the time until about 1 hour 20 minutes into the first act. There are so many stories and relationships intertwined in this tale, that you are keen to see what happens next!
This play is one of gender stereotype, class distinction and family politics. Set in the north east of England in the early 20th century, the play opens with a lady and her baby walking around the stage and exiting stage right. The baby was so well behaved and so cute that he/she deserves a quick mention in any review! The baby is only on the stage for a few moments, but actually forms a key part of the plot in this play.
It is always difficult for directors and set designers to make the most of the circular Crucible stage and I have seen this done in so many different ways, but this was done very well again in Rutherford and Son. As soon as any of the actors look down stage right, you know that they are referring to baby Tony. In the same way you know that Tony is down stage right; Susan (the maid) is never seen but is referred to down stage left; and the village and Rutherford works at the back of the stage. There is just one set, so no scene changes. There is one time that they try to portray the fact that a number of days has passed, but as the lights go down, all of the cast remain on stage and the changing scene is set without you noticing because it is done whilst you are observing each character still moving across the stage and sharing intimate glances, which simply enhances the story and helps to narrate and develop some of the key relationships.
I have seen Marian McLoughlin and Ciaran Owens in the recent Sheffield Theatres production, Love and Information and once again, they gave stand out performances in Rutherford and Son. The north-east accent from most of the cast appeared authentic and solid throughout the performances.
In terms of the family politics I mentioned earlier, this is a tale of ancestry, hard work, entitlement and independence. Each character is written so well with their own endearing qualities, that you can understand their own viewpoints. Even in the self-made patriarch Rutherford (who expects compliance both at home and in the glasswork factory he is the owner of), you see the softness in his cosy chats with Martin – the hardworking man his sons had never turned out to be! However, Rutherford is losing it – his family and his factory and ultimately, he needs the savviness of his working-class daughter-in-law to strike the deal that may save both his factory and his future.
It is also interesting in a play that is about gender stereotype, that actually the strongest characters end up being Mary, the working-class wife married into the family and Janet, the beleaguered compliant daughter who stands up to her father in an impassioned speech about the love of her life. She then witnesses the betrayal by the same said love of her life, who chooses her father (his master) over her and leaves her to make her own way of life without any support.
Every cast member deserves a mention though, as they all play their parts so well. The comedic Mrs Henderson (played by Lizzie Roper) has an almost cameo role in the play – the matriarchal single mother defending her son who was taking money from the Guv’nor, but the scene is hilarious. Then the touching moment when John refuses to give back what he believes he is entitled to, Mary knows this will come to no good and has to think about her new born son and decides to stay at the manor whilst he leaves to once again try to make his fortune. They say it “won’t be for long”, but both of them know that this is the end of their marriage.
The one negative aspect of this was the final scene. As I said above, we don’t know when the play begins with baby Tony how crucial he will be to the conclusion of the plot – the circle of life as they say! However, the build-up of this final deal was then hurriedly finished and I think would have benefited from more of a reflective scene at the end by Mr Rutherford. After such a long play, it is almost like they needed to finish it quickly, which was a shame.
A masterful drama full of gender stereotypes, class distinction, entitlement, power and family politics!
[Please also note: If you park in the local Q Park car park, remember to claim your 1 hour FREE ticket from one of the members of the theatre staff before you leave.]
Tickets cost from £15 (booking fees may apply).
Rutherford and Son is at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield from 8-23 February 2019, for more information or to book tickets visit www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk or call the box office on 0114 249 6000.
Crucible Theatre, 55 Norfolk Street, Sheffield, S1 1DA | 0114 249 6000