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Rutherford and Son (Tour - Oxford)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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For many people, the phrase ‘Edwardian family drama’ these days inevitably conjures up associations of Downton Abbey. Githa Sowerby’s 1912 play Rutherford and Son, revived in Northern Broadsides’ current tour, however, gives us a very different slice of the social spectrum. This is not the world of sumptuous surroundings, elegant dinners, and witty quips from a Dowager Duchess: instead, it’s a gritty presentation of an unhappy industrial family in crisis.

It seems almost unfair to single out specific actors in an expert piece of ensemble playing such as this, but Barrie Rutter is superb as the eponymous tyrannical father. It would be easy for a part like this to descend into caricature, but in Rutter’s hands it never does: while certainly not a likeable man, there is light and shade in the performance that saves him from being an unmitigated monster. There isn’t really a weak link in the cast, however, and it is testament to both the strength of the writing and the actors’ skill that what could become a collection of stock characters (the bad tempered aunt, the frustrated daughter, the put-upon but loyal employee) is instead a group of well-rounded, three dimensional individuals.

The technical aspects of the show are (with the exception of one rather slow scene change) almost flawless: the set is simple but evocative; the lighting is appropriately gloomy; the period detail in props and costumes feels precise. The pacing is good, and Jonathan Miller’s direction is sensitive. Yet for all this, I was left feeling that something was missing, from the play itself if not from the production. This isn’t a piece that sets out to be frothily entertaining (though there is the occasional laugh to punctuate the bleakness), but neither did it leave me feeling particularly challenged, informed, or supplied with new insights. That said, it’s undeniable that the piece remains a polished and highly professional depiction of a by-gone era, with much about it that’s worthy of praise.

Meriel Patrick


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