AFTER ten years away from the National Theatre, actor Roger Allam, star of TV comedy The Thick Of It and long-running retro detective show Endeavour, has made a triumphant return as factory owner John Rutherford in Githa Sowerby’s classic 1912 play Rutherford And Son.
A huge success when it opened, the play has been revived occasionally over the past 40 years and is now regarded as a proto-feminist classic. It tells the tale of the Rutherford family, whose glass factory isn’t the success it used to be. Patriarch John Rutherford is struggling to keep the factory open while his three children — feckless John, curate Dick and depressed daughter Janet — rebel against his authority.
‘It takes a cold, hard stare at the human cost of industrialisation, the pursuit of continual expansion and the cost of class,’ says Roger. 66, who visited the National Glass Centre in Sunderland to get a better understanding of the glassmaking process at the time the play is set.
‘My character is obsessed with class. He is obsessed by his family moving up in class but he also wants them to run the factory.
‘The play isn’t done frequently. It’s interesting to have a 100-year-old British play that isn’t so well known. And you yearn for her to have written more plays because it has a unique tone of voice.’
The character of Janet was applauded by women’s suffrage publications at the time. A single woman in her late 30s, Janet is fed up with being treated as an unpaid servant by her father and dreams of becoming a housewife to one of his factory workers. ‘There’s a scene between my character and my daughter talking about the fact she’s had an affair. That would have been unique in 1912. It’s an emotional scene. You wouldn’t find that so directly in Shaw or other plays of the period…’
Roger was inspired to become an actor after going to the theatre as a teenager. He was studying Hamlet at school and decided to see the original production of Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead at the Old Vic.
‘In those days, tickets were incredibly cheap. You could sit in the gallery for the same price as your Tube fare. I just loved being there. It became my thing.’
On graduating with a degree in drama, his first theatre job was providing the voices of Toto the dog and Glinda the Good Witch in a puppet version of the Wizard Of Oz at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre before going on to join the RSC and carve out a prestigious acting career.
Roger has won the Olivier Award for Best Actor twice — first in 2002 for his portrayal of Terri Dennis in Privates On Parade and then in 2011 for his performance as Falstaff in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2. He’s combined stage roles with TV work, such as his stint in Game Of Thrones.
‘I’d been doing Falstaff at the Globe, so obviously I was broke and Game Of Thrones came along and helped get me back in the black. I was in the first episode and one or two others. I gave the dragon’s eggs to Daenerys and I didn’t die. So I thought, “Surely they’ll have me back at some stage.” No, nothing.’
Did he have his fingers crossed for the final series? ‘I thought I might come back. A few years ago, my friend Conleth Hill [who plays Varys] told me he’d done an episode, walked past a house and said that’s where my character lives. So I was referred to, I wasn’t dead but was never brought back.’
He’s had better luck with Endeavour, the long-running Inspector Morse prequel in which he plays DI Fred Thursday. Roger begins filming the seventh series when Rutherford ends.
After so long in the role, would he want his character to go off in any unexpected directions? ‘He could become a hippie in a commune,’ jokes Roger. ‘We’re up to 1970 now. I never thought it would go on this long when I took it on but I love working with Shaun Evans [who plays Morse]. We get on tremendously well. It’s a great pleasure to do, in a different way to doing the theatre.’
And what does he enjoy about theatre? ‘You get to know the play very well and explore all the different aspects to it. Then you get the joy of performance and you hopefully get better by repeating it. It’s a collection of however many performances, and, because of that, the theatre is never quite finished.’
■ Rutherford And Sons is at the National Theatre until August 3. nationaltheatre.org.uk