Writer: Terence Rattigan
Director: Rachel Kavanaugh
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Ostensibly based on a true story about a naval cadet accused of stealing a postal order from a friend, The Winslow Boy also looks at the changing world just over a hundred years ago: Britain was living under the threat of a splintering Europe, women were fighting for equality with men, innocent people were fighting long battles for justice, coverage of juicy court cases led to trial-by-media in which everyone and anyone felt qualified to comment on matters of which they frequently had little knowledge…. It’s sobering to think that a play written about that period and first performed in 1946 would have such resonance today.
We are under no illusions that the play is firmly set in the Edwardian era. The set is essentially a detailed drawing room in which all of the action takes place; there is the Winslows’ parlourmaid in black-and-white and the ladies and gentlemen dress with Edwardian style. And yet, under the sure directorial hand of Rachel Kavanaugh, it feels entirely contemporary and one can easily imagine the middle-class Winslows as a modern family.
Ronnie Winslow is nearly fourteen and a cadet at Osborne when he is accused of stealing a friend’s postal order and cashing it at the local post office. Technically part of the services, he is dealt with by the Admiralty, summarily found guilty and expelled. His family know nothing of these events until Ronnie turns up on the doorstep having been sent down early. His father, Arthur Winslow, interrogates him and is satisfied with Ronnie’s assurances of his innocence and begins a long battle to clear the name of The Winslow Boy. Arthur instructs MP, barrister to the stars and coldest of cold fish, Sir Robert Morton, to fight the case.
We also meet Ronnie’s mother, his feckless older brother, Dickie struggling through Oxford, and his suffragette sister, Catherine. Initially united in their quest for right to be done, the family backs the quest of Arthur and Catherine to clear Ronnie’s name. But how will the family cope living in the media spotlight, their every move scrutinised? And how will they feel when the costs – financial and personal – mount up and hard decisions have to be made meaning Dickie can’t return to Oxford and Catherine’s fiancé, John, begins to have cold feet when his father threatens his allowance? Can the family remain healthy, individually and together?
If this all sounds as if it could be a somewhat sombre and worthy tale, then fear not. Terence Rattigan has sprinkled rich veins of humour throughout that Kavanaugh ensures are delivered. The cast works seamlessly together with superb timing so that the laughs and other emotional hits flow from the stage.
Central are the portrayals of Arthur (Aden Gillett), his wife, Grace (Tessa Peake-Jones), Catherine (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) and Sir Robert (Timothy Watson). Gillett portrays the single-minded Arthur as driven by facts – his interrogation of John when he asks for Catherine’s hand and his (Arthur’s) discussion of their finances demonstrate that. The tolls the case takes on both his finances and health are clear. Peake-Jones’ Grace provides the voice of reason and stability. She sees the effects of the ongoing fight and her growing concern is evident; she also has some great comic lines, delivered with understated humour. Myer-Bennett’s Catherine is the proverbial unstoppable force in her quest for social justice, but with a delicious dry wit too. Her intellectual flirting with Watson’s Sir Robert is a highlight – one feels that there is business unfinished there and almost hopes the play could continue to see the outcome. Soo Drouet’s eccentric parlourmaid Violet provides heart and humour albeit in a characterisation straight from central casting.
Watson’s portrayal of the lonely barrister is excellent. He brings the right amount of pomposity and self-assurance to the rôle and the scene in which he interrogates Ronnie (Misha Butler), while unsettling in its brutality, has immense power as the first half closes. The chinks in his armour as he becomes obsessed by the case (or maybe by one of the family) widen naturally and offer glimpses at a softer centre.
The two-and-a-half hours fly as we follow the family’s journey in a story still relevant today – another hit from Birmingham REP.
Runs until 3 March 2018 | Image: Alastair Muir