Githa Sowerby's 1912 Tyneside domestic drama is a cracking good play given a superb production, at once flinty and beautiful, by Jonathan Miller for Northern Broadsides.
There’s a Yorkshire “edit” by poet Blake Morrison and, needless to say, a towering, high-decibel performance by Broadsides artistic director Barrie Rutter as John Rutherford, head of the family glassworks business, who rules the roost like a manic combination of Henry Horatio Hobson and King Lear.
The business is failing, but one of Rutherford’s sons (Jimmy Carr lookalike Nicholas Shaw) has hit on a recipe for a metal furnace that will lower production costs; but he wants to market this discovery himself, as a means of escape, not hand it over to his tyrannical and obsessive father.
The life is being squeezed out of the other son, too, vicar Richard (Andrew Grose), hired to maintain moral standards in the work-force, and also his 36 year-old daughter, spinster Janet (Sara Poyzer), who has pinned her last hopes of any kind of romantic fulfilment on Rutherford’s long-serving foreman, Martin (Richard Standing).
Miller and designer Isabella Bywater have created a simple Edwardian setting of dining table and desk on a wooden floor and Persian carpet, two standing doors (even cladding the Viaduct’s steel girders in panelling), lit by Guy Hoare with the atmospheric detail of Georges de La Tour’s candlelit paintings.
Miller has evoked Chekhov in his pre-publicity, but the structure and imprint of the play are more like Ibsen: there’s a thumping sense of things coming to a head; the central moral fibre of John’s Cockney wife, Mary (played with perfect stillness and sureness by Catherine Kinsella); scandals and felony in the workplace; and the incursion of an irate, dissolute working woman (Wendi Peters, pictured) giving as good as she gets from Rutter in their electrifying face-off.
And behind it all is a concern about modernisation, survival in a changing world and handing on the business. There’s a lovely tart cameo from Kate Anthony as Rutherford’s hatchet-faced sister in a home Mary likens to a prison, “not a scrap of love in the place.” And the final scene of resolution and, who knows, redemption, is a truly great one.
Sowerby based the play on her own experience as the daughter of just such a mogul as Rutherford, and you could feel the heightened tension among the Halifax audience sitting in the former warehouse at Dean Clough of a big local family business, Crossley Carpets.
It’s the genius of the play that it charts upheavals in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, blows Shavian trumpets on the emergence of the New Woman, yet still sounds as fresh, disturbing and relevant as if it were written yesterday.