I usually plan to see Northern Broadsides productions at two or three different venues – and sometimes I manage it! Visiting maybe ten or twelve theatres, Broadsides play in such different stage configurations that the production is transformed during the tour – not only design features, but sometimes even the relationship between characters. With Rutherford & Son the desire to see the production both end-on and in-the-round is even stronger than usual because Isabella Bywater’s splendidly solid set is crafted so perfectly for the unique space of the Viaduct Theatre.
Visiting the production near the end of its Halifax run, I found it had lost none of the impact described by Michael Coveney on Press Night. For a start Githa Sowerby’s play is genuinely a major re-discovery in recent years, powerful, convincing, well constructed (note the delayed entrance of Rutherford, after being the main topic of conversation), with sharp shafts of humour early on. Time and again motifs familiar from Hobson’s Choice surface – the road to independence seems to be via marriage to a worker, the final scene is of a determined young woman laying down terms to a confounded industrial patriarch, and many more – so we must remind ourselves that Sowerby’s play was the earlier by four years and, if imitation occurred, it was on the part of Harold Brighouse. The tone of the two plays is not totally different, but Rutherford & Son is decidedly the more serious.
Rutherford & Son emerges as a surprisingly modern text, except for a spell in Act 3 when characters are given too much space to explain themselves in long speeches. Jonathan Miller’s unfussy production gives every opportunity for the in-depth characterisations that are key to the play’s success. Wendi Peters’ comic Mrs. Henderson – in her one scene, a sort of older version of Ada Figgins in Hobson’s Choice – moves towards caricature, but that’s the only example: Kate Anthony resists the temptation to go over the top as Rutherford’s acidly devoted sister Ann, and is all the funnier – and more appalling – for it.
Rutherford (Barrie Rutter in magnificent form) is a monster, but that’s not to say he’s always wrong. His two sons are self-centred and essentially weak-kneed (his fault?) and Nicholas Shaw and Andrew Grose are suitably pathetic beneath the veneer of well-bred comfort. Interestingly, Janet (the excellent Sara Poyzer) rebels against the opposite problem to Maggie in Hobson’s Choice – idleness rather than unpaid labour – but ultimately proves as close to Elsie, Brighouse’s rather less heroic New Woman in The Game, recently staged by Broadsides. The only two characters who have the unselfishness to understand others’ viewpoints are the non-family members: Martin the foreman and Janet’s lover, and Mary, the Cockney daughter-in-law, given beautifully judged performances of understated authority by Richard Standing and Catherine Kinsella, respectively.
And how will the production come across in, for example, York (proscenium arch) or Scarborough (in the round)? I can’t wait to find out.