Northern Broadsides are committed to performing classic texts in authentic northern voices. The story of Rutherford and Son is, therefore, a perfect match. In the early 20th Century John Rutherford (Barrie Rutter) runs his glassworks in accordance with his belief that life comprises work and more work followed by six feet of earth. Rutherford may regret the harsh treatment that alienated his family.
His son John (Nicholas Shaw) refuses to disclose his new method of manufacture that could resolve the financial difficulty of the company and his daughter Janet (Sara Poyzer) has formed a scandalous relationship with a member of the workforce.
Even audiences who accept the principles upon which Northern Broadsides are based would acknowledge that, over the years, their approach has led to some strange interpretations.With their latest production the company shows signs of being less dogmatic. Broadsides regular Blake Morrison has edited Githa Sowerby’s text but the non-northerner Jonathan Miller directs the play. The combination is inspired. Morrison’s revisions remove any anachronisms from the text; as well as making the play easy to follow the process unearths a great deal of much-needed humour.
The play is dangerously close to ‘its grim oop North’cliché. Miller tackles this aspect with a production that has a slightly abstract atmosphere. Rutherford’s glassworks becomes representative of the capitalist system that consumes effort and offers little reward. Barrie Rutter interprets Rutherford as an evangelist for the system and his ‘force of nature’ performance makes it entirely credible that the character could have build an empire by charisma and bloody-mindedness. Rutter has a fatalistic undertone making Rutherford grimly aware that he is only delaying the inevitable moment when he too is absorbed by the system.
The staging is immaculate. Guy Hoare’s low-key lighting sets a sepia tone for the first Act creating a family room dimly lit by sparse candlelight – a household in which nothing is wasted. Miller develops this further by allowing the startlingly black background to suggest the family have been cut-off from the rest of their community or are surrounded by encroaching darkness.
Miller achieves a tremendous sense of time and place through the use of silence. The place of women in society is made shockingly clear in Act One as Rutherford greets the women of his family with icy silence and disdain as they sit anxious or bored awaiting his attention.
It is heart-rending to watch Sara Poyzer realise that her sacrifices are pointless as the man she trusts, and perhaps loves, is more devoted to her father than his lover. It is a world in which everyone is tainted and the best we can hope for is to achieve survival through compromise.
The climax of the play is a stunning confrontation between Rutherford and his daughter in law Mary (Catherine Kinsella). Kinsella develops Mary subtly making clear that her real talent is the strength to cope with change and accept the consequences however unpleasant. You can’t help but think of Michael Corleone accepting his destiny to become The Godfather.
Northern Broadsides have achieved the difficult task of making a bleak play completely absorbing and enjoyable without compromising its content or minimising its power.