A play called Rutherford & Son gripped audiences in London 101 years ago. Set on Tyneside, it was the David Hare-style leftie hit of its season. It depicted the unacceptable face of capitalism, a face that belonged to John Rutherford, who rules the family glassworks by fear, hated by his workers and his children alike. It’s still a fresh, brutal-up-north story of a monstrous control freak devoted to work and money and nothing else.
The show has a terrific twist at the end and it was an instant hit in London, went to New York and was widely translated. But it became a big news story when the unknown author, K.G. Sowerby, was revealed to be a woman. Women did not write plays back then. It stuck in the craw when the critics found out, some of them slimily recanting their positive views of the play. The Daily Mail tracked down its young author. The paper claimed she was pretty, the sort of girl you might expect to see eating chocolates in the shade.
But in fact Githa Sowerby, who died in 1970 aged 93, was tough and serious, a suffragist and a Fabian. She was coy about the source of her material. But she knew what she was writing about. The family in the play was based on her own. Githa had grown up in joyless comfort in Gateshead, where the Sowerby-Ellison glassworks was based, one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of pressed glass. Eventually, she made her way to London, where she lived with her sister, and together they successfully published many children’s books.
Since its debut in 1912, her play has been performed just a handful of times. Now it’s to get a tour by Northern Broadsides, whose actor and boss Barrie Rutter will play the hard-as-nails Rutherford in a tweed suit and stiff collar. Jonathan Miller has come out of retirement to direct the show. The script has been tweaked by the author Blake Morrison, who has worked with the company on half a dozen productions. His recent play about the Brontës was a big hit for this small touring company, which pound for pound has proved good value over the years.
Rutter grew up in Hull’s Fish Dock (as did Tom Courtenay), and when he formed the company 20 years ago actors needed a Yorkshire passport to join: Lancashire’s thesps got a working visa if they were lucky. It’s still true up to a point. The company’s website has an entertaining essay-cum-manifesto by Edward Pearce. He points out that ‘oop’ (as in ‘oop for t’coop’) has never been used in the north by anyone ever: it’s ‘upp fer’t cupp’. Just as ‘goin’ ower ’t moor’ is really ‘goin’ owert moor’. Years of condescension to northern actors got Rutter’s goat (he’s now 66) and is partly why he set up the company; if pressed he’ll admit to a small chip and a big gob.
This show will kick off at the company’s base at the Viaduct Theatre in Halifax, which is appropriate for such an industrial play as the venue was once a carpet factory. For the most part, Northern Broadsides shows have worked not because they are ‘northern’ but because they are fun. Rutter and his merry crew have provided in their extensive Shakespearean output (Lenny Henry was a recent Othello and is to be a future Macbeth) a lively vocal antidote to the untrained bland rhythmless mouthing that passes for verse speaking these days.
‘Northern Broadsides is very much theatre in a proper Yorkshire idiom,’ says Blake Morrison, a long-time London resident but a native of Skipton, North Yorks. ‘Rutter felt this Geordie play could be Yorkshirefied for the cast’s benefit and that of the audience. This didn’t involve much work; although there’s some dialect there’s not a huge amount. I have tried to do it with a light touch. We have had some fairly radical transformations of classics in the past but this is such a beautifully constructed and modern piece I didn’t want to do anything to it you would notice.’
For Rutter, the plan was to play Rutherford himself and get in a guest director for the first time. ‘I saw Jonathan [Miller] on a Tube escalator — he was going up and I was going down. I was in his Shrew at Stratford years ago. He is an attractive man whose company you just want to be in. He didn’t know the play but thought it was very powerful and I knew that, if he was free, he would do it. So here we are, about to start a 14-week tour.’
As Morrison also points out, it’s a realistic piece of theatre and one they won’t be able to jolly along with clog dances and other stunts. He is surely right. Sowerby’s play is an Ibsenite piece with an iron core and a seething sense of the unrest of its period. It has been named one of the best 100 plays of the last century by the National Theatre, which staged it a few years ago. But as Rutter says, ‘Not many know it. This is one of the exciting things in doing it. They didn’t want women to write in the theatre, let alone something this close to the bone. It is wonderfully hard-hitting and funny, too. It’s got a cutting truculence I really like.’
As for Githa Sowerby, she continued writing plays but never had another success. She was left wounded by the lack of attention and before her death she burned photographs and documents to do with her theatre career. Her elderly daughter is still alive and gave a surviving hatbox of memorabilia to the author Pat Riley, providing enough material for her recent biography.
This is proving to be Sowerby’s year. Rutherford & Son will be joined this month by another of her plays, The Stepmother, at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, London; belated amends to a forgotten playwright whose career mistake was to be female.
Rutherford & Son opens at the Viaduct Theatre, Halifax, on 8 February
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 2 February 2013