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Rutherford & Son, Viaduct Theatre, Halifax


Going into the family business has always been a path fraught with peril. To the uncharitable outside observer success is served up on a plate whilst failure – even mediocrity - is seen as some kind of comeuppance for having an unfair advantage.

Sir Jonathan Miller, director of this revival of Githa Sowerby’s 1912 melodrama, initially followed his father – an acclaimed paediatric psychiatrist – into medicine, before pursuing his mother into the world of high culture.

In the intervening half century Sir Jonathan has escaped any suggestions of nepotism to blaze an extraordinary path between science and the arts becoming Britain’s most readily recognisable intellectual.

His decision to accept this offer from Northern Broadside marks his first directorial commission for six years and has generated considerable excitement here up north. At 78 his work continues to demand – and get – national media attention.

Surprisingly perhaps, the former Beyond the Fringe star has said he was unaware of Sowerby’s tale of dynastic breakdown and industrial decline, although he cannot have been alone in that.

Although considered a devastating critique of capitalism at the time it was written, it has been infrequently revived, outdated even, yet would also seem to offer ideal material for a new treatment by Barrie Rutter’s always enjoyable company which has built a fine reputation based on its vernacular Shakespeare and other delights.

Yet even set in the atmospheric bowels of Dean Clough, once the world’s largest carpet factory and now an arts centre and cooking school, this erred too often on the side of dreariness rather than daring. Miller is said to have demonstrated an incredibly light touch in his directorial duties – trusting the actors to feel their way through the script which in this case was reworked by Blake Morrison whose previous collaboration with Northern Broadsides (We Are Three Sisters) was a real triumph. 

But at times this seemed to really drag with lengthy, spirit-crushing speeches ringing out into the dank brickwork. The actors themselves offered up some excellent performances particularly Sara Poyzer as Janet, the tyrannical Rutherford’s daughter-cum-servant, and Nicholas Shaw as John the thwarted ineffectual heir to the declining glassworks fortune.

Rutter fizzed with furious disappointment as the pathologically single-minded industrialist whilst Kate Anthony was a real gem as his joyless sister Ann. But for all their good work the actors did they struggled to rescue the evening which at times felt as arduous as toiling at the furnaces of Rutherford’s itself.

Viaduct Theatre, Halifax until 16 February and then touring to 1 June