Gareth Thomas in Rutherford

Review by Lyn Gardner of The Guardian on October 13, 2001

4 stars

What kind of plays should our regional theatres be producing? New writing, certainly. Modern plays such as Patrick Marber's Closer and, of course, the classics. But there are also undiscovered gems that have the potential to make people sit on the edge of their seats.

Githa Sowerby's 1912 drama is one such play. It fell into obscurity until Katie Mitchell's brilliant revival at the National in the mid-1990s with the late, great, granite-faced Bob Peck as the domineering patriarch John Rutherford. It may have languished once more, but for Joanna Read, whose Salisbury production should immediately be snapped up by one of the northern theatres. But why hasn't West Yorkshire Playhouse, for instance, already done this play? It is a piece of accessible, gripping drama that tells you considerably more about patriarchy and female empowerment than Spring and Port Wine or Stepping Out, and is far more enjoyable. It is as thrilling as Ibsen's A Doll's House, although considerably more bleak.

Rutherford runs a family firm of glass-makers. He is a man who has pulled himself up by his boot straps, and worked himself to the bone. "Life," he declares "is work. You keep your head up and your heels down." He expects his son John to follow him into the business, just as he expects his daughter Janet to keep house for him. But the family business is ailing; John (who is living with his child and young wife, Mary, on his father's charity) believes he has found a way to escape his father's tyranny, and Janet has a secret that will make the family implode.

Every word of this play is like one of the shards of glass that surround the stage. It is written in anguish and pain and a belief that life is too precious to waste. It is an extraordinary play for a woman to have penned 80 years ago, and it is a merciless exposť of the damage inflicted on children by parents who try to control their offsprings' lives. Every choice it presents is hard: the terrible bargain that Mary must make to ensure her son's survival; the limited options available to Janet.

Read's production is like Rutherford himself, as tough as old boots, and the acting is transparent. Don't hesitate, just go.


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