Rutherford and Son at the National Theatre
Polly Findlay’s production of Rutherford and Son is basically the National Theatre programming the Lyttelton on autopilot. A period piece revival with a slavishly detailed set, hot director and cast comprising a big name and some stage favourites. Though never actively bad, the show is so uninspiring – and overlong – that it doesn’t paint the theatre in a particularly flattering light.
Rutherford isn’t just a name. No, first and foremost it is a business, a fact behind every decision made and action taken by the family’s patriarch (Roger Allam). It keeps Janet (Justine Mitchell) unmarried and in unpaid servitude; leaves John (Sam Troughton) cowed by his father, drawn back home with his wife Mary (Anjana Vasan) and child in tow; and sends Richard (Harry Hepple) into the clergy. Only sincere right-hand man Martin (Joe Armstrong) has any fondness for his boss, Rutherford’s fanatical drive for him not a trap but a ladder.
At the very least, on paper Githa Sowerby’s drama – set in the North and based on the playwright’s own family glassworks in Gateshead – provides the National with an opportunity for some regional diversity. Instead, we get a series of accents of varying shonkiness. Mitchell fairs best, while Troughton sometimes ends up sounding like the Swedish Chef (admittedly his John is trying to present as a Harrow-educated gentleman); Allam is probably in the middle, his roars of displeasure revealing a southern undertone. It might sound like a small thing, but it doesn’t half drag you out of each scene.
Lizzie Clachan’s set is, admittedly, gorgeous. It is, however, a bit of a route-one option, a pin-point accurate recreation of what the Rutherford family house would look like rather than anything more thematically or stylistically interesting. It is a problem that extends to Findlay’s direction, the only real flourishes being a lush cascade of rain before the play begins, and a spinny moment at the end that seems there just as an excuse to use the vast depths of the stage.
Though the narrative never really gets going – it’s a surprise that this is the second revival of the play this year – it does contain a few deliciously meaty verbal rallies. Janet’s late-night assault on her father, raging at the ways his desperation to escape his own working-class upbringing has created a prison for his children. The gradual dissipation of hope as Janet and Martin try and work out a life together (Mitchell is easily the production’s MVP). The play-closing negotiation between an heirless Rutherford and his daughter-in-law. All great, but hard fought for in what is otherwise a slog.
Photo: Johan Persson
Rutherford and Son is at the National Theatre from 16th May until 3rd August 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.