It’s hard to be critical of a play that includes the phrase “nobbut a lad” four glorious times. And it’s difficult to be tough on a script that is clearly a work of art, particularly considering the author was a woman writing in 1912 when that just wasn’t the done thing. But when one actor’s performance is so hammy that it ruins the rest of the show, then criticism is warranted.

Rutherford & Son was written by Githa Sowerby, the daughter of a glass works owner on the banks of the Tyne river in the North East of England. She drew on what she knew for her masterpiece, weaving her experience of the industrial North into her visceral narrative. The play was an instant smash hit with its echoes of Ibsen and Chekhov, despite the (for the time) daring suggestion that women craved a role outside the home.

In many ways, the life depicted in Rutherford & Son is not so different from the world today. A businessman struggles to keep his company afloat, determined to soldier on no matter the cost. A family bickers and chafes, sons and daughters lament the hand life has dealt them and the patriarch looms large over the dinner table. A century after it first premiered to an appreciative audience at London’s Royal Court, Sowerby deserves the same reaction from 21st century patrons.

Alas, this production of Rutherford & Son falls short. Produced by Northern Broadsides, a company regarded as a theatrical powerhouse in the North of England, all the ingredients were there for a perfectly baked show: a beautiful script red in tooth and claw by someone described as history’s first significant female playwright; one of the world’s leading opera and theatre directors in Sir Jonathan Miller; a Northern script featuring actors from that most Northern of creations, Coronation Street; and a regional company with an international standing. But the cake just wouldn’t rise. Why not? The central performance.

Barrie Rutter is the founder and artistic director of Northern Broadsides and has been at the helm for the past 21 years. The national newspaper reviews have heralded Rutter as perfect for the role of John Rutherford and praised his portrayal. And yet, as last night’s show at The Lowry in Salford wore on, I began to wonder if they had seen a different play.

Sowerby created a complex character when she wrote John Rutherford: the embodiment of a despotic father, a hard grafter who brooks no dissent or disobedience, a man with little time for the niceties of life and a ferocious intolerance for disloyalty. This is a role which demands the whole gamut of human emotion. Rutherford lurches from anger and fury to humour and straight talking. One moment he is a wounded man who recoils from the betrayal of his most loyal servant, the next he casts his daughter out on the street with pitiless rage. Or at least he would have encapsulated all of these qualities if someone else had been cast in the title role.

Rutter managed the angry bits; most of his dialogue was shouted and screamed at the surrounding cast. But where was the nuanced delivery, the black soul, the raging against the dying of the light? There was passion in his tone but none in his body language. For this reviewer at least, whole passages of dialogue were wasted, single lines thrown away.

This is not to say the rest of the cast were below par, far from it. There were many fine stage presences, in particular Richard Standing as Martin, the faithful workman whose understated, quiet performance had the most to say.

Review by Helen Nugent

Rutherford & Son

What: Rutherford & Son

Where: The Lowry, Salford Quays

When: until April 20, 2013 then touring

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