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Rutherford & Son – Oxford Playhouse

Writer: Githa Sowerby

Director: Jonathan Miller

Reviewer: Carol Evans

[rating:4]

Barrie Rutter packs a powerhouse performance as the domineering patriarch in Northern Broadsides’ impressive production of Githa Sowerby’s Rutherford &Son at Oxford Playhouse this week.

Written in 1912, it is based on the author’s grandfather who ran a glass works in the north of England around that time. It centres around an arrogant industrialist, glass factory owner John Rutherford. He is a bully with no love for anyone or anything except the business which means more to him than his family or their happiness. His business is failing and his bombastic attitude and blinkered efforts to keep it afloat lead to the utter disintegration of his family as they flee the nest out of his reach.

Rutherford not only rules the roost at work but at home too. He is unbending and rude, and his high-handed attitude makes for an uneasy existence in the comfortable but oppressive home he shares with his grown-up children, sister (who all fear him) and four-month-old grandchild. “It’s like a prison. There’s not a scrap of love in the whole place,” says his Cockney daughter-in-law Mary who has been singularly ignored by Rutherford in the few weeks since she and her husband John junior have been living there. And she is right. The appalling atmosphere, engendered by Rutherford senior’s dogmatic and overbearing attitude, is rife with antagonism and malevolence: everyone is arguing with each other or generally being unkind.

Rutter is terrific as the tyrannical, misogynist Rutherford who has so browbeaten and humiliated his children that they find it almost impossible to stand up to him. He alienates his son John junior (Nicholas Shaw) by at first rubbishing, then demanding, his new recipe for a metal furnace when he realises it will help his failing business. He loses his other son Richard (Andrew Grose) a vicar, after harsh and hurtful words. But he saves his real humiliation and venom for his 36-year-old spinster daughter Janet (a spirited performance in her eventual fight-back from Sara Poyzer) who he turns out of his home after learning she has been seen with the factory’s (working class) foreman Martin (Richard Standing). The only person who is not scared of him is a working woman from the village, Mrs Henderson, played by Wendi Peters who gives as good as she gets in a formidable across-the-table face-off when she visits his home to complain about her lot.

Under Jonathan Miller’s expert direction, Isabella Bywater’s set and Guy Hoare’s lighting design, the action takes place in an atmospheric low-lit Edwardian dining room evoking the dark, claustrophobic nature of the subject matter.

By the end of the play, with all his offspring cast out, Rutherford realises the future of his business is in jeopardy with no-one to continue the family dynasty. In a neat twist, it is the ignored and derided daughter-in-law Mary (a lovely measured performance by Catherine Kinsella), who provides its salvation. Highly recommended.

Runs till March 2

Picture: Nobby Clark

 

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