It would have been easy for Northern Broadsides to do yet another play set in the trenches. An August Bank Holiday Lark, however, helps us understand why this came about in the first place.
I’ve never been a fan of making people write plays to “briefs”. Theatre companies do of course have to consider what sells, but I’ve always felt that the more constraints you place on what a writer can write about, the less likely you are to get a good job out of it. Well, one person who feels differently is Deborah McAndrew, who considers these constraints an opportunity for inspiration. In theory, the brief for An August Bank Holiday Lark was quite simple: Northern Broadsides wanted to do a play about World War One on the centenary of its outbreak. In practice, however, it was a lot more constrained. For a start, there are plenty of plays about the horrors of the trenches, with recent successful tours of Journey’s End and Birdsong to contend with. They might have stood out from the crowd by doing a Michael Gove-friendly version where plucky British fellows under command of brilliant aristocratic leaders ensured victory for King George by December 1914, but they didn’t.
Seriously, however, there was little enthusiasm for a trench-based play with a “northern” perspective. The lazy solution – the solution which artistic director Barrie Rutter suspects television would have done – would be to combines stereotypical northern poverty and misery with the misery and subsequent slaughter in the trenches. Then there was another constraint in play – in Lancashire, where this play was to be set, the enduring memory of the war was the Gallapoli offensive in 1915, when the Loyal North Lancashire regiment suffered its worst losses. As a result, a time-frame of 1914-1915 was suddenly imposed on the play. And there was one final constraint: the title suggested by artistic director Barrie Rutter was a line from Phillip Larkin’s famous poem MCMXIV. And it stuck.
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.