Writer: Terence Rattigan
Director: Rachel Kavanaugh
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Like British theatre’s equivalent of a hardy perennial, Terence Rattigan’s 1946 play The Winslow Boy is never long away from our stages. This sturdy touring revival shows again why the story of a 13-year-old boy who is accused falsely of stealing a five shilling postal order continues to intrigue us.
It is mark of the play, based on real events, that Rattigan accepts neither that the sum stolen is trivial nor that the boy’s upper-middle-class family’s quest for justice is insignificant. The moral certainty which, seemingly, belongs to a bygone age, feels like a safe haven from the confused turmoil of the modern day and this could explain the play’s enduring popularity. Rattigan’s supreme craftsmanship as a dramatist could also have something to do with it.
The problem for director Rachel Kavanaugh is how to stamp her own mark on such a beloved classic, when audience expectations are pretty well set in stone. Wisely she does not try too hard to be innovative and settles for a production that, we suspect, has the same look and feel as most others over the last 72 years. Michael Taylor’s turquoise-walled set of the Winslows’ Kensington home and his period costumes endorse this view, as does the venue – the ornate late-Victorian Richmond Theatre.
Aden Gillett gives a fine portrayal of English stoicism as Arthur Winslow, the father who defends Ronnie, the son who has been kicked out of Osborne Naval College for the alleged theft. In his defiance, he takes on the Admiralty, not only risking bankruptcy and jeopardising his own health, but also requiring his older son Dickie (Theo Bamber) to sacrifice his studies at Oxford and making it necessary for his daughter Catherine to break off her engagement. Timothy Watson as Sir Robert Morton, the eminent and expensive barrister hired to represent Ronnie is exactly as haughty and aggressive in interrogating his client as he needs to be to carry off the great coup de théâtre which ends Act I.
Rattigan observes the patriarchal society of the period immediately preceding the First World War with wry humour and dwells on the rise of feminism. Ronnie’s mother Grace (Tessa Peake-Jones) is a dutiful wife to Arthur who has little say on how things develop. However Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s zestful and clear-minded Catherine, a member of the burgeoning Suffragette movement, is laying down a different path for herself and her generation. It could be seen as progressive that the journalist who arrives to interview the family is female, but she shows more interest in the sitting room curtains than in the court case. Wittily, Rattigan could be foreseeing that the journey towards gender equality would not be without its setbacks.
The real-life Archer-Shee case on which the play is based was a cause célèbre in its day and set a lasting precedent in British law. The Winslows stir up the sort of media frenzy that, nowadays, would be reserved for the antics of a reality TV star and we ask whether this could really happen just for the sake if 25p. However, it is not about cash, it is about honour and Rattigan’s eloquent explanation of the place of honour in our nations’s psyche makes his play worth revisiting, if not too often, then from time to time.
Runs until 12 May 2018 | Image: Alisatir Muir