Rutherford And Son – February 2019

Experience: 8/10

By Githa Sowerby

Directed by Caroline Steinbeis

Venue: Crucible Theatre

Date: Thursday 21st February 2019

Lovely to see this marvellous play again, and this was a very good production of it. Owen Teale was strong as Rutherford himself, and the rest of cast gave good support. Not a huge audience – the place was about half full – but there was plenty of applause, and a number stayed behind for the post-show Q&A.

The set emphasised the industrial aspects of the play. A large central platform was laid with flagstones, their untrimmed edges giving a jagged appearance to the otherwise round shape. There were three steps up to the space front left and right, and a door left of centre at the back. Despite the pre-performance gloom, I managed to spot a picture hung above the door, and there were also two long ironwork girders above the stage: one went across the back while the other one came forward and hung over the dining table, which was placed left of centre. I think the ceiling light hung off the girder, but I can’t be sure. The pre-show lighting created shadows of these girders on the back wall, making for the pronounced industrial effect.

Apart from the dining table and six chairs, there was a fireplace centre right, more easily seen once the aunt had lit the fire – real flames – with two chairs further back and a long padded bench to the front of it. The desk was back right, behind the fireside chairs, and there was a sideboard back left, beside the door. Later on, I spotted that a Rutherford & Son sign had been painted directly onto the bricks of the back wall, and could be either hidden or illuminated as the story developed. We sat on the central aisle, a few rows back, and there was a woman signing on the left hand stairs, although the performance was so gripping I hardly noticed her.

Before the start, there was an excellent ‘please switch off your phones’ announcement: it wasn’t so much the words as the polite, but pointed delivery, with “switch your mobile phones off” being followed after a brief pause by the word “now”. It got a laugh, which is a rare thing these days. They even allowed several moments for the audience to do as requested – also rare – and then the lights went out.

The performance started with Mary (Danusia Samai) coming on through the back door, carrying her baby. The lights were low, but sufficient to see her as she walked around, rocking the child a bit. Naturally we assumed this was a fake baby, so we were amazed to see, when she came to the front of the stage and turned to face our way, that she was holding an actual, real, live, baby! Wow. She or he was looking around a bit, as if wondering what was going on, but was beautifully behaved. Eventually Mary took the baby off stage, after Ann (Marian McLoughlin) had lit the fire. What made this all the more remarkable was that this opening spell was accompanied by some of the most unpleasant, squeaky music I’ve ever heard. It went on for some time, but the baby didn’t seem to mind at all. In fact, at the post-show, we were told that a couple of times when the baby was crying beforehand, as soon as they came on stage the crying stopped: someone joked that CDs of the music would be available, which made us all laugh.

When Mary returned, she picked up a work basket and sat on the bench, while the aunt, Ann, sat in one of the other chairs and started laying about herself verbally. I found her accent a bit strong at first, so it took me a while to tune in, but we’ve seen the play before and I got the gist of her bitching. There was also a lot of coughing during this section, including behind us, which didn’t help.

When Janet (Laura Elphinstone) came on, she showed us her level of discontent by dropping her father’s slippers in the middle of the floor, instead of putting them by the fire to warm as instructed by Ann. The characters were beginning to emerge, few of them likeable, and then John (Ciarán Owens), Mary’s husband and father of baby Tony, came in wearing a dressing gown. He occasionally held his arm across his face to cough, but it wasn’t entirely clear at first that he’d been ill. Despite years of failure, he was convinced he’d developed an idea which would make him rich, allowing him and Mary to leave and live much better lives elsewhere.

Richard (Esh Alladi), the other brother, also put in a brief appearance, but soon left the snappy atmosphere of the living room for the peace and quiet of his own room.  After some more bitching and arguing, we had another laugh when the family heard the approaching footsteps of Rutherford, and everyone rushed to put away whatever they’d been working on and sit down before he entered the room: from their attitudes it was clear that they were more than a little scared of him.

Rutherford came through the door still talking with Martin (Brian Lonsdale) about work. When that was settled, Martin went through to the kitchen to sort out some problem or other, while the family sat down for dinner. Before they could taste a morsel, however, Rutherford wanted to sort out whether John’s idea would be any good or not. Martin had prepared the ground, and John took his opportunity to claim the money which he felt was his – several thousand pounds. Rutherford wasn’t about to buy a pig in a poke, and questioned John to find out how he’d developed the “recipe” for this new “metal”. (I know, it’s a glass works, but that’s the terms they used.)

Rutherford’s concern was that a successful small-scale experiment wouldn’t necessarily result in significant savings when scaled up to full production, and I could see his point. But he was also so focused on the family nature of the business that he couldn’t see why John, his designated successor at the company – Richard’s ‘delicate and sensitive’ nature was immediately apparent during his brief stint on stage and made him a non-runner in that particular race – wouldn’t just give him the recipe for nothing. After all, the business would be all his once Rutherford died, and anything which could make that business more successful was simply helping to increase John’s inheritance.

John’s attitude to the business had already been made clear, and he wasn’t slow to repeat himself to his father, but the message wasn’t getting across. He refused to give his father the requested details, but I couldn’t help feeling he was missing a trick with his blinkered approach. Eventually Rutherford elicited the important information that Martin also knew the recipe, and the discussion was deferred to a later date.

This was a very strong scene. The coughing disappeared completely as the audience was gripped by the tension between the two men. When it was over, the family dispersed – no dinner tonight – leaving Janet alone on the stage. She had put her face in her hands and was crying when Martin returned from the kitchen. He came over to the stool and took her in his arms: several in the audience gasped as he kissed her long and hard. They broke apart as Rutherford came back on, not seeing what had happened, and the act finished with Rutherford alone on stage.

The lights were lowered again, and the music returned, but this time it wasn’t as unpleasant to my ears as before. The various characters came on and changed the set, clearing the dinner things for example, but also doing strange movements and sometimes just standing around for a bit before leaving the stage again. It was a bit peculiar: perhaps it was meant to show the passing of time, but if so, it didn’t work very well for me.

The second act began with Richard and his father. Richard had been offered a job in Southport and was keen to take it, but he wanted to check that it was OK with Rutherford first: it was. That could have been the end of the conversation, but Richard carried on. He had told Mrs Henderson (mother of a young chap fired by Rutherford for stealing from the firm’s cashbox) that she should come up to the house and plead the case for her son to be reinstated, and she was due any time now. This did not please Rutherford at all. Martin had done the actual firing, but he backed Martin’s judgement all the way, and besides, young Henderson had already been given a second chance.

This contretemps allowed Richard to tell us what a strain it had been working in a parish where his father held sway. Rutherford’s lack of religious observance undermined his son’s attempts to foster Christian values amongst the working folk, and Richard was all too conscious of being laughed at by his parishioners. He was also aware that others in the family were the butt of the town’s jokes, including Janet.

Mrs Henderson (Lizzie Roper) arrived at the door, and had to wait a while before she was let in. Her drunkenness may explain why her accent seemed to wander round the country a bit – I certainly found her lines harder to follow than I expected. Even so, we got the main points, especially when she turned back to give Rutherford a piece of her mind. Between her comments and Richard’s inability to keep a secret, Rutherford learned that Janet had been seen walking with Martin on several occasions recently. Given that Martin had also recently moved out of the works to take a cottage a mile away, this wasn’t the most difficult mystery to figure out.

Dismissing Richard, Rutherford sent for Martin, and when he came plied the man with both whisky and information about the dire state of the business’ finances – a different story to the one he’d told the firm’s backers earlier on. According to him, the firm was tottering on the brink of insolvency, so when he asked Martin for the recipe for John’s metal, he was simply asking a loyal worker to do his best for the business. Martin didn’t have it on him, and was reluctant to betray John, but was swayed by Rutherford’s tactics, promising to hand the recipe over the next day.

Finally, to complete his day’s work, Rutherford spoke to Janet, asking her about her relationship with Martin. When she admitted it, he banished her from his house, telling her to leave the next morning. She fought back, pointing out that they were still working class, despite his pretensions to having raised them up a level. They weren’t allowed to mix with their social ‘inferiors’, but the middle class looked down on them, so she, Janet, had no prospects of a marriage and family. Her suffering and bitterness were evident, as were her father’s complete lack of understanding and compassion – not words he was ever likely to use, never mind having those qualities himself. The first half ended with Rutherford alone on stage as the lights went down.

After the interval, the play restarted with Mary and Janet. Janet was all packed up and ready to go, and she did thaw out enough to thank Mary for always being so supportive of her, despite her own unkindness to her sister-in-law. When Martin arrived, he turned away from Janet, just as he’d been turned away from the firm – once Rutherford got the recipe, he’d no more use for the man who’d ‘shamed’ his daughter. Despite all Janet’s pleadings, Martin was still under Rutherford’s thumb, and believed he wasn’t entitled to live his own life. Hard to accept in this day and age, but they managed to sell it, just.

Even though the setting was so clearly period, I did find it a bit hard to understand why anyone would have a sense of shame about Janet’s relationship with one of her father’s workers. In a similar way to Measure For Measure, I felt the obvious solution to a number of Rutherford’s difficulties would be to allow Janet and Martin to marry, giving him a son-in-law to carry on the business, and quite possibly grandchildren as well, but that’s deep-rooted social prejudice for you – common sense goes out the window.

Martin stayed till John came in, wanting to apologise to him for handing over the recipe. This put John into a right temper and, after Martin left, John ransacked the desk, trying to find the money he believed his father ‘owed’ him. There was just the cash box which John soon broke open, taking some twenty pounds or so, while Mary did her best to persuade him to put it back and make it up with his father. She was thinking of their child, while John was obsessed with revenge and getting away.

Janet left during this section, and this time I wasn’t so aware that she was going out to die, more that she was going for a long walk to find somewhere else to live. After several attempts to persuade John to return the money, Mary realised that he was never going to let go of his hatred long enough to consider the needs of her and Tony, and so she made her final suggestion: John would leave and she and Tony would stay put. Once John had established himself somewhere, he could send for them. She helped John into his coat, and said what she knew would be their last goodbye. He, of course, grabbed at her solution with both hands, relieved to have them off his hands, and still full of the delusional belief that he could make something of himself.

With all three children gone, there were fewer places to lay for lunch. Ann came on and bustled about, but soon left Mary to sort out the table. When Rutherford came in, Mary told him dinner would be ready shortly, and then she tackled him head on. She knew she had the one thing he needed more than anything else – a descendant to carry on the family business. Choosing to sit at the head of the table, with Rutherford at the other end, she made her offer. She and Tony would live in the family house, Rutherford would pay for the boy’s keep and schooling, and after ten years, during which she would have Tony all to herself, Rutherford could prepare him to take on the family firm. It was the first business-like proposition Rutherford had been given all evening, and he admitted a grudging respect for Mary because of it. Naturally, he agreed, and that was that.

It was a very strong finish – no coughing – and we gave them plenty of applause. Lizzie Roper stepped forward to make the announcement about the post-show, and while not many stayed on, we did outnumber the cast who came out. There were the usual starter questions from the compere, and it was nice to hear that the director, herself a proponent of more European avant garde styles, had realised that this play needed to be told absolutely straight, in period costume and with no fancy staging to make it ‘relevant’ to the present day. A great choice, and I have plenty of admiration for any director who can shift styles to serve such a powerful piece of work. I don’t remember much else, but we left feeling happy to have seen such a strong revival of this great play.

© 2019 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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