Rutherford and Son at the National Theatre: ‘sadly one-note’

Midway through Polly Findlay’s production of Githa Sowerby’s Rutherford and Son, spinsterish sister Janet (Justine Mitchell) taunts her brother John (Sam Troughton) for his failure to confront the head of the household. “He’ll never say anything,” she tells his wife, Mary (Anjana Vasan), “Because he’s nothing separate from Father.” The Rutherford of the title is indeed a parental blackhole. The intimidating industrialist draws each family member into his orbit; they are all crushed by his gravity. While the National Theatre’s staging boasts strong performances, it is undermined by Sowerby’s narratively flat, unvaried script. 

The action begins on a rainy evening in Grantley, a turn-of-the-century industrial town in northern England. Mary, a transplanted Londoner, tends to her infant son while the Rutherfords await their patriarch’s arrival. There will be no dinner until Mr. Rutherford’s (Roger Allam) return, and his family are hungry for more than just food. Ne’er-do-well John has developed a formula that will cut costs at the glassworks, and offer him enough money to finally leave the family business. Gentle vicar Richard (Harry Hepple) seeks permission to become curate of a distant parish, and Janet, flouted, isolated, and embittered, simply wants a life beyond the suffocating confines of the home. Over the course of nearly two and a half hours of stage time, the players make various assays against the familial “Molloch,” the god to whom they have all been sacrificed, and the annihilating patrimony he represents. 

Roger Allam in Rutherford and Son.

The production is well-acted. Despite a few accent inconsistencies and line stumbles, Allam is convincing as a man for whom offspring are simply appendages, and who, although he wishes to climb the class hierarchy, can think only in terms of trade; his mind is metal, or more accurately, glass. Mitchell gives Janet a tight, starved countenance and body language that bear witness to her emotional deprivation. In such a serious work, Sally Rogers’s Mrs. Henderson is welcome comic relief; she is ignorant of the danger Rutherford poses, and so emerges from the family home unscathed. 

Justine Mitchell provides a ‘starved countenance’

Notwithstanding its echoes of Great Expectations—Rutherford has dedicated himself to “making gentlemen,” much like Dickens’s Magwitch—the play ultimately put me in mind of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. Both works are set in 1912, and both are emotionally harrowing explorations of family disintegration involving multiple charged confrontations. Whereas the members of O’Neill’s Tyrone clan are linked to one another by complex networks of love, trauma, and disappointment, however, the Rutherfords simply hate their domineering father. Each child has his or her moment of reckoning with the man behind the desk, and eventually, the set-ups, and sentiments, become repetitive. The play lacks emotional variety; the characters’ anger is at high intensity throughout. The offsprings’ listing of grievances ultimately feels too direct; Sowerby states and restates the conflict rather than let it emerge organically. The work is actually at its most effective during moments of silence; the sense that Rutherford drains the life from the home becomes palpable, the fear he inspires real. 

Furthermore, while the set is impressive—it can rotate 180° and slide forward and backward on the stage—its effects are without purpose. The play’s action takes place exclusively in the confines of the family sitting room. Rutherford and Son is well-observed and competently staged, but for a work that ostensibly takes in class conflict, industrial decline, the oppression of women, and family breakdown, it is sadly one-note.


Rutherford and Son is at the National Theatre until the 3rd August, 2019.

Photograph credit: Johan Persson.

Sarah Gibbs is a graduate student pursuing a PhD in English Literature at University College London (UCL). Her writing has appeared in Descant, Filling Station, and Novelty magazines.

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