How not to raise a son and heir

Rutherford and Son is little-known 1912 gem by Githa Sowerby. Once again, Northern Broadsides has shown how good they are at reviving forgotten plays.

One complaint I frequently hear is that women don’t get a fair crack at having a career at a playwright – one stat frequently mentioned is that apparently only 17% of performed plays are written by women. But if anyone thinks they’ve got it bad now, it used to be a lot worse. Back in 1912, Githa Sowerby fancied a crack at being a playwright. As a precaution against stupid generalisations about women writers, she chose to play it safe and used the name “KG Sowerby”. The good news was that Rutherford and Son was a smash hit. The bad news was that that is was such a hit everyone just had to find out more about the writer. And they found out what the “G” stood for. And the moment the press knew she was a woman, they did one of the most blatant U-turns in the history of theatre journalism. It didn’t kill her career as such, but she never reached the same heights again, moved into children’s writing, and died at the age of 93 believing that no-one was interested in her work any more.

However all is not lost. After her death, her work was rediscovered by a number of groups, and the latest group to rediscover this play is Northern Broadsides, who have quite a speciality in reviving forgotten plays. And, quite frankly, all those people who dismissed her work out of hand were fools, because she paint a very convincing portrait of of life in a family like Rutherford’s. It is widely believed that John Rutherford is based on Githa’s own grandfather, who reputedly ran both his glass-making business and his family with an iron fist. Same goes for John Rutherford, who aided by a nit-picking sycophantic sister, refuses to acknowledge the wife of one son who married a girl from a lower class without permission, rubbishes his other sons’s career as a priest (admittedly not a successful job when the whole town hates your father), and keeps his ageing daughter under lock and key.

But the story isn’t quite as simple as that. It would have been easy for Githa Sowerby to portray her grandfather as the villain through and through. What we have instead is a man whose foolish pride makes him his own worst enemy. Why is the play called “Rutherford and Son” and not “Rutherford and Sons?” Because what John Rutherford wants more than anything is for his business, that has remained in the family for generations, to pass to a son and heir. But he one thing he cannot do is force any of his three children to take over the business after he’s gone, and, alas, thanks to his control-freakery, none of his children want to take it up. And that’s if there’s anything left to pass on, because his business is also in a bad way. A life time of punishments of loyal workers over mild indiscretions is taking its toll and he only has one ally left in his business. The only thing that could save it is a new metal invented by his son – and his son has no intention of giving the secret without a high price.

So how does Northern Broadsides handle the play? Well, apart from the productions with the writer/director partnership of Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson of A Government Inspector fame (which is very much an artistically autonomous sub-company within Northern Broadsides), Northern Broadsides is largely the Barrie Rutter show. Artistic Barrie Rutter directs a lot of the plays and appears in lots of the plays he directs. This is a practice that is frowned up by many theatre buffs, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem. It’s one thing to write the play, direct the play, and always cast yourself into the biggest / most glamorous parts irrespective of whether you’re right for it, but Barrie Rutter is very good at identifying which part, if any, he is most suited to. This means that most Broadsides plays feature Barrie Rutter as the Barrie Rutter character, but it works, because I’ev yet to see a play where he’s miscast himself.

It is rare, however, for Rutter to cast himself into the lead part, but this him he plays John Rutherford himself – and what a performance. The Guardian says Rutter “was surely born to play the role of Rutherford“, and that’s no exaggeration. He often plays a mildly pompous self-obsessed middle-class man, but when you see him sitting proudly and trying his best to stubbornly ignore some home truths about the situation, he does a superb job that few others could manage. In order to play a lead role, Rutter sensibly doesn’t direct for a change, instead leaving this to veteran Jonathan Miller. However, it is still stylistically very much the Northern Broadside formula Barrie Rutter has created. Not that this matters, the tastes of Rutter, Miller and set designer Isabella Baywater do a wonderful job of a symbolic well-to-do house where it’s always dark.

This is a play that clearly plays to Northern Broadsides’ strength, and this is a performance that doesn’t disappoint. Is it adventurous of Northern Broadsides? Arguably no. When I review plays, I frequently comment that the production’s good, but the theatre company stayed in its comfort zone. This probably applies to Rutherford and Son, because reviving forgotten plays from the early 20th Century is one of Northern Broadsides’ specialities. But that is only a recent speciality – in most of their 21-year existence, their reputation was Shakespeare and other classic texts – classic 20th-century plays and the excellent McAndrews/Nelson adaptations are just a comparatively recent addition to their programme. And on top of this, they find time for the odd piece of new writing and musical collaborations – all of which they have done without a producing theatre to call home. That is the most remarkable thing about them, because I cannot think of any other purely touring company in northern England who achieves as much as they do. If classic 20th century plays is your thing, Northern Broadsides’ take on plays such as Rutherford and Son is just the thing for you. If it’s not your thing, it shound’t be long before they do something that is.