The Edwardian period wasn’t at all good for professional women in general and female playwrights in particular. Take the case of Githa Sowerby. In 1912, at age 35, her play Rutherford and Son enjoyed a respectable run of 133 performances at the Vaudeville Theatre in London and was spoken of in the same breath as Pinero and Galsworthy. All the same, the play was advertised as being written by a certain K.G. Sowerby, whom critics and audiences assumed to be a man.
With her gender no longer under wraps (the play opened on Broadway a few months later under her full name), Sowerby sent her second play to the eminent playwright Harley Granville Barker, who turned it down saying it wasn’t “as good as it ought to be.” Fortunately, several feminist colleagues of hers, including such prominent actresses as Fay Compton, Mrs. Patrick Campbell and Sybil Thorndike rallied and appeared in her later work, without, however, achieving the success or critical acclaim of Rutherford and Son, whose reputation had sadly sunk into obscurity until it was revived by the National Theatre in 1994.
As well crafted a play as any by her male contemporaries, including DH Lawrence, Harold Brighouse, and even up there with George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara – with whom it shares a dominant paterfamilias as well as such Shavian topics as feminism and commerce – Rutherford and Son is about a domineering Tyneside glassworks industrialist (Roger Allam) whose overpowering stranglehold on his son John Jnr (Sam Troughton) and his spinster daughter Janet (Justine Mitchell) results in nothing but misery and heartache for his joyless, unhappy brood, including a second son, Dick (Harry Hepple), an ineffectual local curate.
In retaliation for John Jnr bringing shame to the illustrious name of Rutherford by marrying a common working-class girl called Mary (Anjana Vasan) and giving him a grandson he neither wants nor cares about, Rutherford Snr persuades his faithful long-time factory manager Martin (Joe Armstrong), who is having a secret romantic liaison with Janet, to hand over the formula of an invention John Jr has been working on for years and that could conceivably save the ailing glassworks factory from closure.
Decades of familial discord and disappointment reach a climax in an astonishingly powerful set-piece in which Janet, facing instant eviction because of her clandestine affair with Martin, somehow, and from the depths of somewhere, manages to find the cathartic strength to confront and accuse her father of the chronic neglect and abuse he has inflicted on her.
With John Jnr stripped of the invention he hoped would bring him fame and fortune, with Dick about to abandon his local parish for a better appointment elsewhere, and with Janet banished from the only home she ever knew, it is left to working-class Mary, deserted by her disillusioned husband, to strike a deal with old Rutherford that will assure her and her son’s future for years.
What is really astonishing about a play written by a woman in 1912 (and which gives this revival its contemporary relevance) is the strength ultimately shown by its two main female characters: Janet, who, at an immense personal cost, courageously confronts her tyrannical father, and, more remarkably, Mary, whose climactic coup de theatre ends the play on a note of unpredictable irony and a triumph of sorts for womanhood.
En route the play also acknowledges that Britain was fast moving out of the 19th century into a 20th century world of escalating international commerce, extraordinary new inventions, the ongoing suffragette movement and a changing set of moral values.
At the same time, Rutherford and Son still retains all the trappings of an old-fashioned, well-made play whose second half is far more compelling than the first. The number of empty seats I counted around me after the interval attests to this.
Working in a meticulously detailed, characteristically cluttered, obfuscatingly underlit Edwardian setting by Lillie Clachlan (lighting by Charles Balfour), director Polly Findlay certainly achieves a palpable mood of North Country gloom to the extent of imposing on some of the cast, most notably Barbara Marten as Rutherford’s hatchet-faced sister, accents so clotted as to be unintelligible at times.
In the main, though, the performances are first rate, with Allam perfectly balanced between the kind of hissible villain usually encountered in mid-19th century melodramas, and a man of breeding whose old-fashioned respectability in the eyes of the community mean more to him than the emotional well-being of his imprisoned, more forward-looking offspring.
Mitchell is excellent as a frustrated spinster who, after 37 years, suddenly finds her voice and the courage to face an uncertain future. There are strong characterisations too from Vasan and Armstrong.
A little more light (literally), more pace in the first half and a toning down of some of the accents would benefit this otherwise admirable revival enormously.