A brief language lesson: According to the “part-banter, part-racist” English idiom, the North, is somewhere it is said to be Grim Up. Not in common usage days – likely because many Londoners simply refuse to believe the North exists at all since Brexit – the erstwhile traditional stereotype has been parlance since the early twentieth century; possibly having been popularised by JB Priestley who wrote of a particularly depressing visit to Tyneside in his 1934 book, English Journey. Alone, ‘Grim’ may just have been reference to the heavy rain that was consistent through his stay, but the feeling spread across all he experienced and now the three words used together – and the sound they make when said aloud (a hollow thudding dull rhythm created by the repetitive flat vowels) – create an image of something he described as “a huge, dingy dormitory” (of) “poverty, idleness, ignorance, hopelessness and misery” inhabited by people with a “most barbarous, monotonous and irritating twang.”
The inevitable gloom just gets gloomier.
Curiously follow the words ‘Grim’, ‘Up’ and ‘North’ with ‘Ruth ‘Her’ and ‘Ford (sp ‘Fudd’), and you’ll hear a structural assonance that creates a similar allusion. Fittingly as many of Priestley’s descriptions could quite easily be included in a synopsis of Rutherford and Son, now playing at the National Theatre’s Lyttleton. Which should set your expectations for the gloom and misery it offers. In buckets. It is the tragically undramatic events that take place in the Northern home of the factory-owning Rutherfords, where the unhappy Rutherford children, unhappily put up with every unhappy day accepting their father’s unacceptable tyrannous ways; that clearly originate from his own unhappiness. Until finally they must unhappily leave, unhappy at being worse off than they were when they were unhappy at the start.
In case it’s unclear: if you’re looking to the theatre to give you a night away from the worries of the world in return for your £89 top price ticket (curiously 30% more expensive than the same seat at Top Girls, also in rep at the Lyttleton right now), then this may not be your best option. That said, I find it difficult to imagine that anyone could really get excited about the prospect of a night that seems guaranteed to remove any vestige of hope left in your soul.
It’s unarguable that Githa Sowerby’s play is important, not just for being representative of the imbalance of society and gender when it premiered at London’s Royal Court in 1912, but also because Githa Sowerby was female (she had to use a male pseudonym to be published). It’s one of The National Theatre’s Top 100 Plays. Nonetheless, it wears its grimness from the first moment and then builds throughout. As Lizzie Clachan’s design opens (and closes) with a curtain of rain falling in sheets downstage, it allow us glimpses of a manor’s living area, where two women, dresses heavily starched, one swaddling a baby, the other stitching, exude hopelessness and misery just by their gait.
These first ‘less-than-uplifting’ moments, are soundtracked by a choral quartet singing live at the stalls’ sides, the sort of music that recalls images of curtains drawing slowly together and the sounds of muffled sobbing. The singers harmonise beautifully in the round, overlapping with variations of “The Nor..or.orth Coun-tree… The Nor..or.orth Coun-tree… The Nor..or.orth Coun-tree” over and over and over and return to fill both entr’actes (only the first is an interval, the second just a passage of time as we see props being ‘tidied in character’ – someone having had a last-minute change of heart as the programme still states two intervals. Don’t moan – you will be out of the darkness 15 minutes earlier). By the end of the singers’ final outing, I swear they started interspersing the echo of “It’s Du…uu…uu…uu…uulll…. It’s Du…uu…uu…uu…uulll” but I can’t be certain that wasn’t just me ‘listening between the lines”.
Contrary to how this may sound, it isn’t to say that this is a bad piece of theatre; far from it. There’s some very fine acting to be seen – along with some not quite so fine attempts of the “monotonous and irritating twang” – and Roger Allam certainly deserves his place as the show’s Poster Boy giving a quietly understated performance as the titular Rutherford (referred to as the Guv’nor or the Master, but never his actual name, John).
For the first 30-40 minutes of Act One, our expectations of Rutherford are built up by the impressions of the ones who harbour resentment but remain subservient in his presence. Sam Troughton as eldest son John Jnr (see?) paces the stage like a man without a shadow, all brow-moppy, fidgety, throat-cleary and, at times screechy – he has an ‘invention’ and is back from London, with his wife and child and a need for his father’s money which, in the safe father-free environment, he asserts weakly that he is jolly well going to demand of him. His is the visual representation of the stereotypical weak, lily-livered “Southern Pooftah” and Troughton’s performance seems focussed on taking over the stage (rather than commanding it as Allam does) with flouncy shallow signifiers in place of any real depth.
Daughter Janet (Justine Mitchell – seen previously as the woman planning to have sex with Troughton’s character in Beginning, which is disturbing if unintended) – and spinster sister Ann (the gloriously never-smiling Barbara Marten) seem more accepting of the dearth of satisfaction their lives offer, almost taking masochistic pleasure in their roles as they fret and fuss to ensure all is correct for his return for dinner. Cue much conversation about burnt pikelets, t’cream of t’top and t’whippets ready for t’racing (ok, I made that one up about the whippets).
So when the Guv’nor does arrive, his mild, if firm, manner is not quite the aggressive loud angry bluster of a man one may have expected. There’s no doubt he truly is the Master of this house, but this comes across in the very straightforward matter of factness of his delivery. Rather than threaten, he directs conversation to bring it round to his way. Rather than bellow, he pauses and holds the eyes of those around them as they struggle in his gaze to respond. Yes he is clearly an angry old man, but in making the displays of the power others have given him subtle, Allam makes him rather likeable. Dare I say I even found myself siding with him as he eventually ends up turning out each of his children, for disagreements over money, love and religion.
In today’s world you can’t help feel that men like Rutherford existed because the people around them were complicit as passive victims – bestowing upon them a god-given right to behave as they did. What a difference a century makes. But that doesn’t help with the way the inevitable gloom just gets gloomier, not dramatic. It’s not as depressing as it may sound – though that may not be a pull-out quote the National will be using – but it’s like a Radio 4 Play on nuclear fallout that you hear is great but secretly hope won’t be on BBC Sounds much longer; sometimes you’re glad it exists but don’t want to have to sit it through it yourself.
Do note however that in the National’s 2019 programme, this comes after domestic abuse, paedophilia, capitalism and Windrush but before apartheid, ‘Australia’s dark history’ and the Tory party of the 1980s. I’m afraid this may just be one of many worthily wordy, rather than enjoyably ephemeral, experiences on offer at the National for some time.