Rutherford and Son review – passion and power in Githa Sowerby's classic

Crucible, Sheffield
Owen Teale and Laura Elphinstone are superb, as a patriarch and his daughter, in Caroline Steinbeis’s potent production

The astonishing thing about Githa Sowerby’s play is not that it is currently fashionable – the National also revives it this year – but that it lay neglected for so long. It was ignored between its premiere in 1912 and its rediscovery by feminist groups in the 1980s, yet in its passion, power and ability to relate domestic issues to the wider social landscape it more than matches the plays of its time by Harley Granville-Barker and DH Lawrence.

Rutherford himself is the patriarchal owner of a Tyneside glassworks who expects total fealty both at home and on the factory floor. His world is slowly crumbling, however. He alienates his two sons, one of whom has made a discovery that could save the tottering firm from collapse, and banishes his daughter, Janet, on learning of her secret affair with his foreman. At the last he is left alone with his daughter-in-law, Mary, who strikes a bargain that shows the balance of power to be radically shifting.

Fealty expected … Owen Teale in Rutherford and Son.
Fealty expected … Owen Teale in Rutherford and Son. Photograph: The Other Richard

Ingenious as the climax is, I shall remember Caroline Steinbeis’s production for two tremendous scenes, both involving Laura Elphinstone as Janet. In the first, she rounds on her father, accusing him of ruining her life: delivered by Elphinstone with a lifetime’s banked-up fury, the speech is one of the most potent statements by a wronged woman in British drama. Elphinstone is equally hypnotic when, realising that her lover’s ultimate loyalty is to his master, she sits on a chaise longue with head tilted in silent contemplation of a world awry.

Owen Teale is excellent as Rutherford in that he neither rants nor blusters but speaks with the quiet authority of a man who expects to be obeyed. There is strong support from Danusia Samal as the despised daughter-in-law, Ciarán Owens as her weakly defiant husband and Brian Lonsdale as the foreman steeped in feudal values. I could have done without some artily choreographed movement between the acts. Otherwise this is a first-rate revival of a landmark play.

Contributor

Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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