Rutherford and Son, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

People in glass houses
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The Independent Culture

What other plays, after Hobson's Choice and Hindle Wakes, should the major theatres in the North be putting on? The Royal Exchange has come up with a sharply etched production of Githa Sowerby's fascinating, dark family saga Rutherford and Son, written in 1912. Set in the North-east (where Sowerby Glass had been in production in Gateshead since 1760), it brilliantly explores the widening of tiny cracks into deep fissures in a family weighed down by the ruthlessly domineering industrial patriarch John Rutherford.

What other plays, after Hobson's Choice and Hindle Wakes, should the major theatres in the North be putting on? The Royal Exchange has come up with a sharply etched production of Githa Sowerby's fascinating, dark family saga Rutherford and Son, written in 1912. Set in the North-east (where Sowerby Glass had been in production in Gateshead since 1760), it brilliantly explores the widening of tiny cracks into deep fissures in a family weighed down by the ruthlessly domineering industrial patriarch John Rutherford.

Maurice Roëves is a fiery, intransigent Rutherford (the role taken by Bob Peck in the National Theatre's production just over a decade ago), proclaiming in each gesture his pride in his status as a self-made man. For him, life is work: "I've toiled and sweated to give you a name you'd be proud to own - worked early and late, toiled like a dog when other men were taking their ease - plotted and planned to get my chance till I could ha' burst with the struggle." In the stultifying atmosphere of the draughty living room, run with unquestioning attention to Rutherford's every need by frosty Aunt Ann (Dinah Stabb), it is evident that his children, and indeed all around him, are in danger of becoming fossilised. The shadows of this tyrant and the rumbling Rutherford glassworks have loomed tragically over all their lives and loves.

Sarah Frankcom, the director, wisely allows the play's remarkably daring and perceptive reflection of class and gender politics to unfold at its own pace. It means that the long first two acts are somewhat unbalanced in proportion to the short, fast-paced final act, which Sowerby added when persuaded to finish the play somewhat later. But that is not to suggest that there are no sparks created in the drama's simmering exposition, during which frustrations, ambitions and resentments are gradually given engaging voice. With each tiny action and smouldering silence, Rutherford's unhappy household threatens to explode into the fire so evocatively suggested in the flickering flames from the furnace encircling Simon Daw's authentically designed set.

Any hopes his family may have, he destroys: bullying and cheating his angry, self-pitying older son, John (Daniel Brocklebank), who has devised a "recipe" for a type of glass that could make his fortune; and belittling the pastoral duties on which his younger son has hopelessly embarked. In the role of the spinster daughter, Janet, Maxine Peake unlocks the drama's emotional texture with her concentrated performance. You just know that the affair upon which she has embarked with her father's right-hand man, Martin, is doomed - the master's shackles have been imposed on him to a paralysing extent.

In the final act, Janet's impassioned dialogue with her lover and the ease of her exchanges with her sister- in-law, Mary (portrayed increasingly sturdily by Christine Bottomley), reveal that, as the pressure builds and truths erupt, it is the younger female characters who emerge thrillingly with empowerment. The lives and futures of their weak male counterparts, on the other hand, look irredeemably shattered.

To 19 February (0161-833 9833)

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