THEATRE / There's fury in the family firm: Paul Taylor reviews Katie Mitchell's engrossing production of Rutherford & Son at the Cottesloe

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With the revival at the Orange Tree of St John Hankin's 1905 comedy The Return of the Prodigal, and the premiere at Hampstead of Stephen Jeffreys' A Going Concern, 1993 offered us two appetising reminders of the quality and range of the English 'family firm' play, a genre enriched by such writers as Granville-Barker, Galsworthy and Priestley. What better setting could be found for heightening the feel of cross- generational conflict and Oedipal tension? For, if all children worry that their parents want a 'return' from them, then the offspring of the head of a family business must experience, to an acute degree, the trapped, de-individualising sense that they are seen primarily as investments in the future.

Rutherford & Son, revived now at the Cottesloe in Katie Mitchell's engrossing, beautifully performed production, gives a woman's perspective on a world where men made all the big decisions. Githa Sowerby, herself from a Northumberland glass manufacturing family like the Rutherfords, wrote the play in 1912, and found the drama quickly co-opted by the suffrage movement.

Not that the piece is partisan in its creative sympathies. As it draws you into the dour, cheerless, acrimony-ridden home-life of the Rutherfords, the unenviability of everyone's lot comes over keenly. Having gone into the Church rather than the family firm, Richard (Wayne Foskett) is treated with a crushing, calculated indifference. The heir to the business, John (Sean Chapman), isn't much higher in the popularity stakes, his lower-class London wife, Mary (Phoebe Nicholls), only tolerated in the house because they have a baby son. You can understand why John, rather than let his father have it for free, wants to patent his new cost-cutting process, so as to make money that will liberate him from Rutherfords.

There's no denying, though, that the most moving character is Janet (superb Brid Brennan), the 36-year-old daughter who has declined into disgruntled skivvydom and sour spinsterishness - unmarriagable because her father thinks the locals aren't good enough for her and because she isn't considered good enough by the suitable alternatives.

When he discovers that she's been having a secret affair with lower-class Martin (Tom Mannion), his trusty right- hand-man at the works, Rutherford summarily orders her to leave and in a lava- flow of scalding anger she vents on him all her pent-up bitterness at having desiccated under his tyranny. In a later scene with her lover, who has also been dismissed, she gradually realises that Martin feels awkward and bereft without a master to serve, and dubious about the freedom of an impecunious life with her. With a piercing acuteness about the world of male relationships ('Men forgive easy where it's a woman, they say'), she tells him that he'll have a better chance of reconciliation with Rutherford if he fails to stand by her than if he does his duty. Releasing him, she eventually leaves the hated home, shawl-covered and penniless.

As the mustachioed, dismissively dogmatic Edwardian patriarch, Bob Peck is magnificently overbearing and authentic. He could have stepped straight out of a sepia photograph. But though the character scorns the very idea of having 'ideas about life', Peck's intensity and blinkered drive show you that, for this man, Rutherford & Son is a metaphysical entity, rather than just a money-making machine. Certainly, black-walled and with vast alienating gaps between the pieces of furniture, Vicki Mortimer's design suggests that the home is no decadent sink of Sybaritism.

Only at the end does Rutherford meet his match in the daughter-in-law who is also impelled by a big idea, though the bargain she strikes over her baby son's future seems to fly in the face of common-sense psychology. Even if the grandfather avoids, while training the boy, the mistakes he made with his own children, on what grounds does the mother think it would be a happy fate for him to be a facsimile of Rutherford? The whole play tells against that.

At the Cottesloe, SE1, in repertory until November (Booking: 071-928 2252)