Monday, 25 March 2013

Theatre review: The Winslow Boy

Terence Rattigan's centenary celebrations in 2011 included a number of revivals of his plays, resulting in a renewed interest in his work, which continues to make regular returns to the stage a couple of years after the anniversary. It's no wonder; the last decade's reevaluation of his work has revealed one of the great playwrights of the 20th century, unfairly allowed to slide into obscurity after the Angry Young Men put him out of fashion in the 1960s. I've really enjoyed the work of his I've seen so far so was really looking forward to the latest revival, and one of his most famous works: After joining in the birthday party with Cause Célèbre two years ago, the Old Vic takes on The Winslow Boy, Lindsay Posner directing a cast led by Henry Goodman as the father taking on the government in a fight to clear his son's name.

Arthritic banker Arthur Winslow (Goodman) is a severe presence in his upper-middle class London home, somewhat feared even by the clear favourite among his children, youngest son Ronnie. His suffragette daughter Catherine (Naomi Frederick) is looking unlikely ever to marry, and he makes no attempt to hide his disappointment at older son Dickie's (a fully-clothed Nick Hendrix) lack of commitment to his university studies. When Ronnie (Charlie Rowe) is expelled from an exclusive naval academy for allegedly stealing a postal order, it proves the last straw. Determined to prove his son's innocence, Arthur embarks on a lengthy and costly legal battle to ensure that Ronnie is judged by an independent court.

I'll have to try hard not to go on forever here, as one of the remarkable things about The Winslow Boy is just how much is going on. There's oceans of characterisation going on all the time under the story, with the excellent cast bringing all of it to life. Arthur allows the case to drag on for two years, to the detriment both of his own health and his family's fortune, in what is ostensibly a fight for justice and his son's honour but increasingly becomes a stubborn matter of pride, Goodman conveying the relentless anger and frustration of the man. His biggest ally is Frederick's Catherine, not entirely convinced of her brother's innocence herself but genuinely in the fight because she believes a fair trial is the right thing to aim for. An interesting position is held by the older son, Hendrix doing well with the frequent comic relief of the happy-go-lucky ragtime fan but also leaving no doubt that, when the finances get tight and he's told he'll have to drop out of Oxford, his breezy response hides genuine heartbreak.

Deborah Findlay as Arthur's wife Grace is allowed to crack her stoical façade when things start looking desperate, but still holds her own, refusing to fire the big-mouthed chamber maid (a funny turn from Wendy Nottingham) even as they can't afford her. Peter Sullivan is in his element as Sir Robert Morton, the impossibly arrogant big-name lawyer the family are trying to woo to their case, but he too reveals emotional depths he'd prefer to have kept hidden. And in the middle of it all Rowe's Ronnie is barely concerned by the storm that his father is allowing to tear his family apart, pointedly sleeping through the majority of the third act while things fall apart around him.

In among all this Rattigan also manages to suggest some of the points about press intrusion that he would later explore further in his final play Cause Célèbre, and the setting of the action in the two years before the outbreak of World War I casts an additional shadow over proceedings: Although it's Dickie who's pointedly seen looking forward to fighting, it's hard not to think that the teenager at the centre of the storm is unlikely to make it to his twenties (as indeed was the case for the real-life "Winslow boy" who inspired the play.) Peter McKintosh's set, lit by Tim Mitchell, seems to reflect the growing melancholy of the family's situation as the play goes on, and Posner's production strikes all the right notes. Funny, moving and compelling with cracking dialogue, The Winslow Boy justified my high hopes for it, and made a new Rattigan fan of Vanessa, who'd previously known nothing about the play but muttered "superb" at the end.

The Winslow Boy by Terence Rattigan is booking until the 25th of May at the Old Vic.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

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