Rutherford and Son, Northern Broadsides’s revival of a muscular Edwardian drama, arrives in the West End with a timeliness that is almost mystical. Yes, there are historical parallels; the play is set amidst a backdrop of economic and industrial decline, and the titular industrialist rues the banks for being unwilling to lend. However, these issues are no more pertinent than they were in, say, 2010. The real factors that make the timing so “curiously relevant” – to borrow a phrase from guest director Jonathan Miller – are twofold. First, the theatrical climate: this thoroughly Ibsenian work emerges onto a London stage in the midst of an Ibsen revival. Second, and most significantly, it coincides with a totemic anniversary: the death of Emily Wilding Davison and an attendant commemoration of all things Suffragette.
The Suffragette factor is essential, as it is the feminist angle that makes Rutherford and Son exceptional. Indeed, the play was written by a female Fabian and suffragist, Githa Sowerby; after the huge success of the play’s premiere in 1912, the critic from The Daily Telegraph retracted his positive review after he found out that she was female.
This leads us to the apparent paradox at the centre of Rutherford and Son, both the play and this production: it is dominated by an overbearing Edwardian patriarch, but at heart it belongs to the women. Northern Broadsides’s artistic director Barrie Rutter plays John Rutherford Sr, a despotic widower who heads a failing glassworks empire in Yorkshire (relocated from the original Tyneside). He rules over a household with “not a scrap of love in it”, emasculating his feckless sons and humiliating his crushed spinster daughter, Janet (Sara Poyser). Rutter is a force of nature, electrifying the stage in the role; bullying and bombastic, he brings the full force of Rutherford’s tyranny to bear while simultaneously hinting at his inner vulnerability.
However, there is no paradox if we appreciate the play for what it is: an Ibsen-inflected study of male domestic tyranny. Even the ending is a radical spin on A Doll’s House. Each of the play’s female characters is fighting her own struggle against the limitations of her gender, and it is they who truly constitute the play’s centre of gravity. Sara Poyser’s Janet gives the most furious speech of the play as she asserts her sexual independence against her father’s disdain; Catherine Kinsella, as Rutherford’s working-class daughter-in-law, Mary, makes an astonishing transition from meek houseguest to steely power broker. Comedy veteran Jonathan Miller also uses the women as a welcome vessel for humour, whether through the sarcastic wit of Janet or the plain-speaking interjections of Rutherford’s sister Ann (Kate Anthony).
Isabella Bywater’s dark period production design accentuates the pervasive atmosphere of oppressiveness, an oppressiveness that Miller effectively conveys through the skilful use of silences – most effectively in an intense dinner table scene where the patrician Rutherford tries to ignore the existence of the working-class Mary. Only in Blake Morrison’s occasionally unsubtle updating of the original text does the production slightly fall short; it is not necessary, for instance, for Rutherford to repeat the Victorian mantra of “life is work” when this attitude is already evident from his speeches. However, this is but a minor hiccup in a barnstorming production – and, unlike the narrow-minded Telegraph critic a hundred years ago, this is an opinion that I shall not retract.
Rutherford and Son runs at the St James Theatre until 29 June. See the St James Theatre website for more information.