Rutherford and Son: a portrait of a family business

Scene from Rutherford and Son © National Theatre
A snapshot of economic and social life in Edwardian England

Rutherford and Son
By Githa Sowerby
Directed by Polly Findlay
Running at the National Theatre until 3 August

Industrial chemist John Rutherford Jnr (Sam Troughton), estranged from his father as the result of a marriage to a working-class woman, Mary (Anjana Vasan), is forced by necessity to return home. He has developed an invention that could potentially revolutionise the way glass is made. John Snr (Roger Allam) wants him to use the invention to save the family firm. John Jnr believes he is entitled to patent it and sell the secret to the highest bidder. Meanwhile, John Jnr’s siblings, curate Richard (Harry Hepple) and spinster Janet (Justine Mitchell), have their own plans for the future.

The main theme of the play is the impact that the burly patriarch, who is clearly a manipulative bully who will accept nothing less than blind obedience, has on his children and employees. But the victims of his bullying are not entirely sympathetic either. His elder son is petulant and self-centred, the foreman Martin (Joe Armstrong) is dog-like in his devotion to his “master”. Predictably, this subservience only acts to make John Snr even more of a monster. Tellingly, the only character to win his respect is the one who treats him in the same way he has treated others.

The play was written in 1912, a time when Britain was still considered an economic superpower, but there is a pervading sense that, like the firm, the country’s best days are now behind it. As John Snr admits, the formerly prosperous glass factory now makes a loss and faces the very real prospect of either going out of business, or being sold to a rival. While he is able to marshall various excuses for that – unfair foreign competition, unsympathetic bankers and shareholders only concerned with short-term profits – but one gets the impression that the real reason for the factory’s troubles lies with its owner, particularly in his feudal style of management and resistance to change.

The play is marked by some strong, compelling performances, especially from Roger Allam. Justine Mitchell also delivers a strong performance as the daughter who has been ruined by her father’s desire to keep her tied to him. At the same time, the

play’s atmosphere is enhanced by a wonderful set, which perfectly evokes a gloomy soot-stained drawing room in a mansion in the north of England. Some of the stronger accents could have been toned down a little, but it’s easy enough to understand what is going on. This play is definitely worth catching, and one that works equally well as a piece of drama and as a snapshot of economic and social life in the Edwardian period.