FringeReview UK 2019
Polly Findlay’s revival of Githa Sowerby’s Rutherford and Son, designed with its own atmosphere and moving stage by Lizzie Clachan and lit so memorably by Charles Balfour, opens at the National’s Lyttelton. Music composed by Kerry Andrew and a vocal quartet directed by Sarah Dacey with Paul Arditti’s sound.
A tenebrous set obscured by rods of rain looms forward with a brightening fire stage left; it seems to hover through an oily film of smoke.
Polly Findlay’s revival of Githa Sowerby’s Rutherford and Son, designed with its own atmosphere and moving stage by Lizzie Clachan and lit so memorably by Charles Balfour, opens at the National’s Lyttelton. There’s a cappella folksong too, a marvellously haunting score composed by Kerry Andrew, a vocal quartet directed by Sarah Dacey with Paul Arditti’s sound.
With the second revival this year of Sowerby’s 1912 masterpiece it’s time to wonder if this is Sowerby’s masterpiece. Quite possibly, but it’s her first of eight plays. Only the superb The Stepmother revived at Chichester in 2017, has otherwise been mounted of any other plays since a one-off premiere of The Stepmother in January 1924.
Sowerby’s father was an artist who inherited the family glass factory, but her extraordinary portrait of a glass factory owner – Roger Allam’s tyrannical John Rutherford – and his adamantine dismissal of each of his three children, springs from somewhere else. Only Granville-Barker and D. H. Lawrence wrote anything approaching its power in this period. It’s remorselessly structured, and springs a trap at the end. Contemporaries cited Ibsen in theme, though Sowerby’s structural devices bear both kinship and difference – particularly with regard to class barriers and invisible hierarchies.
A play dissecting patriarchal assumptions, it ends with two women as victors. Ella Hickson’s Oil with over a century of hindsight (with an initially similar set) echoes it, but the one set’s implacable oppression seems the portrait of a mind. When anyone’s portrayed as outside it’s often with images of wind-blasted freedom.
Even more than Oil and Galsworthy’s exactly contemporary Strife about a steelworks, Sowerby’s work give a grimy gaffer’s window on to patents, filched ideas (Rutherford Sr’s at 19 by Americans) and that tipping point when the UK ceased to be the workshop of the world environed with – particularly American – competitors. The scene where Rutherford Sr tells his right-hand Martin they’ve been losing for seven years and will go bust in five, doesn’t just provide plot-points but a critique of capitalism more penetrating than any other play of its time. The psychological subservience of Martin, strike-breaking, once-heroic patriarchy and cut-throats, everything’s encompassed. One major solution, we find, is feminism.
Allam’s patriarch is prepared for – his late arrival builds. John Rutherford Jr, a twitchy high-strung performance from Sam Troughton makes this son from the start seem inadequate. Marrying ‘beneath’ him – to Anjana Vasan’s shop assistant Mary – he’s even more defensive, having come home and not being able to support wife and baby Tony. But he’s come up with a chemical formula to reduce costs by a third, and wishes to sell it to his father. That’s how out of touch he is. But their arrival shifts things, most of all for John’s brother Janet.
Justine Mitchell’s Janet, now 37 has been forbidden to meet with virtually anyone all her life. Janet’s response is embittered efficiency dropping sometimes into passionate outbursts and actions. Mitchell’s visible simmering ought to warn aunt Ann (Barbara Marten) that something’s different, and Mitchell deploying the Geordie stronger in some than others, is clearly shifting. It’s originally down to Mary as she tells Martin: ’You didn’t see through him… you were too near to see, like I was till Mary came.’ Janet’s formed an attachment to Martin (Joe Armstrong) her father’s right-hand, who again is too working-class for her father to accept. Nevertheless Rutherford intends to use him before springing a surprise – Martin knows John’s formula.
Wily Rutherford Senior hears about their attachment through the mother of a boy who’s been caught stealing a £10 note. He originally toys with letting the boy off, but dissuaded by Martin confronts Sally Rogers’ Mrs Henderson, a brilliant cameo that earns a round of applause. She lets something slip the other son Richard or Dick (Harry Hepple), a hapless vicar despised by all, amplifies. When Rutherford evenly dismisses Dick with ‘you might just as well ha’ never been born – except that you give no trouble either way’ it’s shockingly funny, then quietly stunning. A brand gone wrong but at no cost. Rutherford pronounces it with the glassy directionality he deploys when walking straight through the front door to his desk.
Sowerby’s knocked down both worthless brothers and lover, whilst back-grounding Mary. Rutherford confronts Janet and this sets up the first of two great confrontations – something reinforced by the way Sowerby shows Troughton’s John Jr and Armstrong’s Martin incapable of.
Mitchell like Allam dominates proceedings and when she finally confronts him it’s thrilling and explosive. After this Vasan comes into her own with a proposal. Virtually mute till now – a few exchanges with Janet and John Jr aside – she reveals why she’s been mute. Rutherford’s not addressed six sentences to her since she arrived three months ago but she’s listened to everything. Vasan builds up with a quiet triumphant dignity, Allam responding with wonder then as it sinks in, a new recognition.
If Allam and Mitchell dominate, Troughton (reunited with Mitchell since their duet in David Eldridge’s Beginning) is painfully fine as the shriekingly adolescent man-boy regressing in language to his sister as she implacably ordains his caving-in. Vasan is luminous in the final scenes, Armstrong a study in baffled conflict, taking the ‘master’ and man route and withering. Hepple’s ungrateful curate role is hand-wringingly effective; Marten moves like a piece of floating granite about to be chipped, wholly different from Rogers’ vibrant drunk.
If the accents – pitched and pinched high – occasionally obscure meaning, it’s momentary. If memories of the Jonathan Miller production at St James in 2012 surface at the end, with Barry Rutter and Catherine Kinsella facing off, it sets off how carefully Vasan’s pitched her own quiet volley. Like Allam, she speaks quietly because as someone with an ace – like the oen he held till now – she can. There’s a final coup with the set which continues to surprise wth more gloom and a memorable framed image.
Long acknowledged a classic, it’s bewildering that only now are we likely to see Sowerby’s plays emerge, still slowly. Like nearly all her works Sowerby’s final play Direct Action of 1936-8 – about the Suffragettes – isn’t published. Three are to be though the only new title here is A Men and Some Women (1914) which Sowerby’s erstwhile champion Granville Barker turned down with a light comment. This terrific revival though goes at the speed of twilight. A must-see.