The second Terence Rattigan revival to grace the London stage in less than a year, following Angus Jackson’s production of The Browning Version last spring, The Winslow Boy brings to the fore another of the playwright’s trademark relationships between man and boy, this time that of retired banker Arthur Winslow and his son Ronnie.
The latter has been expelled from Osborne Royal Naval College after being accused of stealing a five shilling postal order. But his father, a determined and proud man, is unwilling to let his son’s – and therefore his family’s – name become tarnished by a crime that he did not commit and embarks on a pursuit for justice no matter what the cost.
Based on the true story of George Archer-Shee, an Osborne cadet accused of the same crime in 1908, Rattigan’s play allows the audience only spoken glimpses of the trial. Not a courtroom in sight, the tale unfolds in the Winslows’ Kensington home, where the playwright offers a private view of a family in the public eye, with Lindsay Posner’s direction drawing out the tense and tender moments throughout the course of the two-year case.
As World War I looms and Ireland stands on the brink of civil war, the prospect of a 14-year-old boy stealing a postal order constitutes a petty crime within the wider picture being painted across the political landscape of Britain, yet the family’s personal story dominates the front pages of the national newspapers.
Olivier Award winner Henry Goodman shines in the central role of Arthur Winslow, combining surges of stern anger, weary sarcasm and devoted passion to portray the father whose family’s reputation is on the line. But Goodman’s character isn’t the only dominant male figure to be found in Rattigan’s drama, as Peter Sullivan’s Sir Robert Morton provides another masculine power for Charlie Rowe’s terrified Ronnie to contend with. The most highly esteemed barrister in England, Sir Robert is ruthless when it comes to his profession, but that isn’t to say that he is an unpleasant character, as his dry humour and Sullivan’s perfectly timed delivery gives the lawyer a softer, more likeable, sometimes even comic edge.
These powerful males are supported in the cast by an equally dominant female. Naomi Frederick’s Catherine, a volunteer for the Woman Suffrage Association, is compelling as Ronnie’s feminist sister who risks her marriage and future happiness to support her brother. Nick Hendrix brings humour as Ronnie’s self-assured, less successful older brother Dickie who, like Catherine, yearns for a feminist world… but so that it isn’t always the man who has to pay.
Dickie may describe his brother’s case as “much ado about damn all”, but for the Winslow family, the result of their personal struggle against the will of the state, which is revealed at the end of Posner’s production, is one that was very much worth fighting for.