Rutherford & Son (review)

Eeh, it’s grim up north. There’s trouble in’t mill (well, a glassworks actually), debts are mounting and there’s barely a brass ha’penny for a few candles to light the front parlour.

Sunday, 14th April 2013, 10:40 pm

The dour Rutherford & Son opened for business at Watford Palace Theatre last night and what a tale of ruthless ambition, treachery and family disfunction unfolded.

This is Edwardian melodrama at its most breathless. A page turner by playwright Githa Sowerby, and adapted by Northern Broadsides, that unleashes a story of the grey industrial north that panders to southern preconceptions.

It’s right up there with Delderfield, Cronin and Catherine Cookson. A soap that twists and turns which would be right at home in that Sunday night period drama slot on the BBC.

Jonathan Miller attempts to give us an authentic period piece, which means that most of the production is played out in the half light of a couple of candles and pretty much everyone’s in black. There were times when I wished for a bit more illumination.

If the director was hoping for Chekhov he missed by a mile. This is out and out chick lit with characters so clichéd that I half expected to see the governor, patriarch John Rutherford, with a swirly handlebar moustache and a glint in his eye as he ravished the parlour-maid.

But he hasn’t got time for sex when his business is about to crumble. Instead we have a blistering performance by Barry Rutter as Rutherford, a self-made man who has built up a family business and is bitterly disappointed by the prospect of handing it on to his “soft” children.

Rutherford is a bully with a heart of stone but, perhaps wrongly, I can’t help but admire his principles.

He’s worked man and boy to better himself and now a recession, trouble with the unions, and supply problems leads to threats from the bank to foreclose (sound familiar?)

He’s a desperate man, so desperate that he’s willing to steal from his own son and heir, John jnr, to ensure the business survives.

He’s ensured his boys, John and Dick, were well educated and elevated to the upper classes. His daughter Janet is brought up a lady.

But all three want to escape the influence of their father. John is a feckless dreamer who has never done a day’s real work; Dick has become a curate and Janet has started an affair with a man socially inferior (a rather smouldering performance by Richard Standing).

One stormy scene after another pitches father against sons, wife against husband, and master against servant. It’s heady stuff that loses impetus in the second half but, nonetheless, keeps your attention fixed for every second.

Rutter is superb, if predictable, as the big bad boss who rages at his grown up kids and is baffled by their demands for independence. He’s sly, bullish and utterly reprehensible but also the sort of hard-working man responsible for making Britain a world leader.

Corrie favourite Cilla Battersby Brown (actress Wendi Peters) grandstands in just one scene which could quite easily have been dropped from the production while fellow soap star Kate Anthony (Corrie’s Auntie Pam) has a small role as Rutherford’s homely sister.

But this really is Rutter’s show. His children – Nicholas Shaw as John, Andrew Grose (Dick) and Sara Poyzer (Janet) – do their best but are completely overshadowed by the powerful and tyrannical performance of a man performing Shakespeare in a domestic costume drama.

Running until Saturday. For tickets call the box office 01923 225671 or visit www.watfordpalacetheatre.co.uk