Review – Rutherford and Son, National Theatre

Tuesday 28 May 2019

Yes, we know we’ve flogged variations of the following “gag” several times but if we’ve learnt anything it’s that there’s very little that can’t be re-recyled.

Q: What’s Rutherford and Son about?

A: It’s about 3 hours 15 minutes.

Well that was according to the worrying email the National sent us prior to our visit sending us into a right old dither. It sounded as if it would drag on longer than Theresa May’s departure. Talk about managing our expectations. On the night it turned out to be a nippier but still lengthy 2 hours 50 mins. It may well be shorter by the opening. It needs to be.

In Andrew’s case it lasted barely longer than an hour. He flounced off at the first interval (after the obligatory interval wine you understand). Mind you, after Act 1 you could almost understand why. It’s very much setting us up for what is to come and is a touch stodgy. Surely the brilliant starchiness of Barbara Marten‘s Aunt was enough to lure Andrew back for more? Apparently not.

This is Polly Findlay‘s account of Githa Sowerby‘s play which premiered in London in 1912 with just four matinee performances at the Royal Court followed by a transfer to the Vaudeville Theatre where it lasted 133 performances. Amazing how they did things in those days really. Just 133 performances yet that was considered a success. A woman with a play in the West End in 1912 how amazing that must have seemed.

Ah 1912. The year the first parachute jump was made, the girl scouts were formed, Captain Scott was beaten to the South Pole, Tarzan first appeared, Mr Funk identified vitamins and of course that big boat went down.

Meanwhile up in the north east Mr Rutherford (Roger Allam) rules his family and ailing glass making factory with a rod of iron.

He’s a stickler for routine, leaving his offspring to walk on eggshells. Well kinda. You certainly won’t be thanked if you make a fuss taking off your father’s boots and heaven forfend if you forget to get the cream for dinner. His son and heir, John Jnr, (Sam Troughton son of David and grandson of Patrick) has eschewed the family business, appears to be wasting his Harrow education and has married beneath him to Mary (Anjana Vasan) who has borne them a significant plot point. But behind Daddy’s back JJ has invented a chemical formula that he believes could make a fortune but won’t be giving it to his pa for nothing. The other son is a curate, Dick (Harry Hepple), who asks permission to leave the house and take up a position in Blackpool. Elsewhere daughter Janet (Justine Mitchell) has set her cap at Rutherford’s right hand man, the hard-working Martin (Joe Armstrong – son of Alun Armstrong). If the factory were a mill it would certainly spell trouble.

If you sit in the front few rows you may have problems. Lizzie Clachan‘s gorgeously detailed set (with a real fire) is propelled so far forward – after an impressive introductory rain storm – it practically takes your eyes out. A centre stage stool is a big problem for sight lines in the cheap seats. Is this what they mean by stage blocking?

It must have given people quite a lot to chew on back in 1912. Allam is not the full on enter-villain-through-gap-in-hedge one might expect from such an apparently bullish character. Despite having a rather luxuriant growth of hair on his chops there’s no moustache-twirling here. He manages, occasionally, to be almost sympathetic with his quietly controlled manipulation. Clever. Troughton does a fine line in sweaty outrage. Armstrong and Mitchell are splendid. The later is heartbreaking. The vicissitudes of the second and third acts prove shockingly gripping when things are kept just this side of melodrama, although one scene in Act 2 risked verging on being a bit League of Gentleman.

The bleakness of the canny denouement is emphasised by the set and the technical resources of the Lyttelton’s stage. Impressive.



4 Responses to “Review – Rutherford and Son, National Theatre”

  1. Martin Says:

    Running time on the 17 May preview was 2:57 with intervals of 18 minutes and 9 minutes respectively but intended to be 15 and 5.

    For me, the five-star performances were offset by a lazy, self-indulgent script that lacked direction and the ability to hold the audience’s interest. I felt there were several ill-judged directorial choices too. By the end, my overall rating had just nudged down into two-star territory.

    I couldn’t help feeling that this revival was solely down to the playwright being female and not based on the merits of the piece.

    • Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

      Often I’d agree but I found it compelling once past the Act 1 plod. There was certainly a couple of odd directorial choices including one particular hugely over-played scene.

  2. Bryan Fleak Says:

    “I didn’t ask to be born” Who knew that this play was where that line came from?

  3. tony williams Says:

    At tonight’s performance it was 2 hours 35 mins with one interval placed after presumably Act 1 which as others have said was drab and which enables you to get used to the accents, or not in the case of one of the female characters, thankfully we had signage tonight so that helped. I considered leaving then but I thought something must happen. But at the end it all felt predictable, one of the 20th centuries most important plays ? Hardly. Unnecessary live music and a set movement at the very end simply underlined the thought that maybe they were there to add to a static production. It’s another radio play for me. And another NT disappointment. Allam is always good and underplaying the role meant it came out just right, the rest of the acting was patchy sometimes good otherwise ok. Looking at the next booking period I think I’m not going to book for anything and wait and see. Certainly the comments I heard from American tourists and homegrown regulars were all negative. When are repertoire choices going to improve?

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