In a thicket of dark wooden furniture, a family are making each other miserable. Their collective resentments have formed a brown, sticky patina that has collected over their early 20th century kitchen; the three women who are forced to spend large portions of their lives here have fogged the air with frustration.
Designed with intently cluttered naturalism by Lizzie Clachan, Githa Sowerby’s Rutherford & Son is a stinging antidote to nostalgia for things past and petticoated. I saw it just after rereading E M Forster’s A Room With A View. Written a few years apart, both works document what it’s like to live the restricted existence of a ‘lady’ in a patriarchal society. In Forster, Lucy Honeychurch travels Italy, where established ideals of what a lady’s experiences are permitted to encompass means that statues of a naked Venus are ‘a pity’, solo walking through piazzas is dangerous, and sensuality can only be glimpsed in brief illicit flashes. But her restricted life makes her ultimate escape and happiness all the sweeter. Written by female playwright Githa Sowerby, Rutherford & Son views these restrictions in bleaker terms. Where Lucy cheerfully internalises ideas about ‘a woman’s sphere’, only gently rebelling against them, for Sowerby’s Janet they’re both plain to see and impossible to overcome. In furious speeches, performed with sharp intensity by Justine Mitchell, she tears open any myths about happy domestic angels: she’s imprisoned indoors by her father Rutherford, a Gateshead factory owner who’s determined to make her a ‘lady’ means remaining both in the home and completely subservient to his will.
If this is all making Rutherford & Son sound depressing, well, it is. Sowerby’s play shows how a domineering patriarch can warp and stunt the lives that he’s nominally nurturing. Rutherford subtly crushes his puppyish clergyman son Richard: industry, not Anglicanism, is the only religion he’ll endorse in this bleak town. His older son John doesn’t do much better; he’s come up with a new industrial formula for glass and wants to keep the profits from it, but he’s no match for his dad’s unremitting capitalist fervour. Their sister Janet is desperately bored, forced to live with the restrictions of a lady but the duties of a servant, reluctantly sharing the hearthside with John’s wife Mary. And way in the distance, the glass family factory clanks on; it’s Rutherford’s vast, belching, and favourite oldest child, and it comes first even as it gets further and further from paying its way.
In Fiddler on the Roof, another story of the wrestles between a father and his adult children, the forces of social change and the beckoning future win out. But that’s a story created in a twentieth century that’s already shifted towards liberalism, from within a nostalgic diaspora. Sowerby is writing about her world, before it changes: like the Rutherfords, her family owned a glassworks in Gateshead. There’s a window-smashing violence to this story which is appropriate to what she’s doing, which is exposing the domestic world she lives in, breaking out of what’s allowable for a woman to think and write, entering a public sphere which would prefer to imagine her darning a nightie by the fireside.
Like Bernard Shaw, Sowerby’s work shows the influence of Ibsen, and maybe there’s some of the same challenge to staging these early 20th century plays, with their mix of drawing room convention and furiously radical thinking. Sowerby’s radicalism is compounded by the fact that unlike her contemporaries, she’s also setting her story in Northern England, and telling it from a Fabian perspective that doesn’t hold the realities of business and industry at arm’s length. I’m not sure Polly Findlay’s production restores this story’s original clanking violence. Lizzie Clachan’s set design feels like a haunted doll’s house, convincingly close and claustrophobic, but the confined space makes things feel static, especially in the slow-moving first act. Roger Allam, as Rutherford, makes understated work of this domestic tyrant, and next to him, some of the other performances feel too broad: like Barbara Marten’s theatrically scowling, scolding aunt Ann, or Sam Troughton’s bumptious John.
Somewhere through the first act I found myself thinking: they could totally take him. Rutherford, I mean. These four strong, furious young people could just refuse to do what he says, could call his bluff. Laugh off his commands. Throw open the windows.
In a way, Mary does. She’s John’s wife, raising their son in a strange house. Played by Anjana Vasan, her closing speech is thrilling: it reverses this narrative’s slow downhill creep of liquid glass. But by arguing for her rights, she sells off her child’s future. It’s a moment that’s typical of Sowerby’s play; the way it raises hopes then crushes them with the inevitable, unstoppable momentum of a machine that runs all day and all night. That sense of grinding industrial brutality doesn’t quite make it into this production, with its closely observed domesticity, its prettily falling rain, its live folksong between acts, the slight horror-movie-kitsch of the closing image of Mary’s face, framed in a fogged-up window. There’s a lot of talk about glass, about money, about the family business, but it never quite feels real. What lingers here is the yearning hunger of Mary and Janet for something else, something more.
Rutherford and Son is on at the National Theatre until Saturday 3rd August. More info and tickets here.