Family In Crisis Mode: Rutherford And Son At National Theatre

Rutherford and Son, National Theatre ★★★★☆

Family In Crisis Mode: Rutherford And Son At National Theatre Rutherford and Son, National Theatre 4
Photo: Johan Persson

Every good drama has its gear change moment, the point at which you move from passively watching to completely hooked. It's no coincidence that in Rutherford And Son, things start to steam along from the moment titular star Roger Allam comes on stage, half way into the first act.

He's a big presence. But Githa Sowerby’s 1912 story of a North-East family in crisis mode — loved by the National so much, it's staged it twice now — more than matches his acting weight.

Photo: Johan Persson

Three children, grown up under the shadow of their charismatic father, are each as stunted as the blasted trees on the moor outside their well-run house, stacked with paperwork and gleaming furniture.

Janet (Justine Mitchell) is stoic yet quietly seething, at 36 unmarried because any match was judged beneath her. Dick (Harry Hepple) is a hesitant vicar, John (Sam Troughton), a spivvy salesman with a Harrow education who hopes a glassmaking recipe can save his wife and children from poverty. "Your mother brought you up soft in secret on books and poetry," accuses Rutherford of John. The play's hook hinges on how each of the children's closely guarded secrets; who they are, the fact they hate him, are unravelled.

Photo: Johan Persson

Lizzie Clachan’s austere set is introduced under a curtain of driving rain, an immersive setting for this cold world. The Geordie vowels also have dramatic power here. In Allam’s Rutherford, whether you think him worthy of pity and fair minded, or tyrannically controlling, his voice is warm and solid. In John, his rising panic is conveyed through the sing-song way he speaks. Plaudits to dialect coach (Daniele Lydon) for working with the language so well rather than just getting the accents right.

Photo: Johan Persson

In the factories of the type Rutherford owned, molten glass would have been moulded under 500 degrees of heat. Within these claustrophobic walls the family has withstood the heat only to shatter one by one. When the night ends there are only two standing and a new, chillier future awaits.

Rutherford and Son, National Theatre (Lyttleton), South Bank, SE1 9PX. Tickets: £32-£84, until 3 August 2019.

Last Updated 30 May 2019