The Winslow Boy

Terence Rattigan
Old Vic Theatre, London

Charlie Rowe (Ronnie Winslow) and Henry Goodman (Arthur Winslow) Credit: Nobby Clark
Naomi Frederick (Catherine Winslow) and Henry Goodman (Arthur Winslow) Credit: Nobby Clark
Peter Sullivan (Sir Robert Morton) Credit: Nobby Clark

The Old Vic is fast becoming a major contributor to a very successful Terence Rattigan renaissance as The Winslow Boy follows Cause Célèbre into the venue, while other major works such as Flare Path and The Browning Version have both enjoyed recent West End revivals.

The master of the well-made play is seen to good effect in this legal drama, which gets a timely revival.

As our current Government, egged on by the Fourth Estate, begins to move towards an abandonment of Human Rights as a fundamental tenet of our existence, the debate is thrown into stark limelight by the fate of the Winslow family a century ago.

Commencing in July 1912 and progressing through two years until the brink of a war too terrible for the innocent future participants to contemplate, the starting point of this 1946 drama is something as mundane as the forging of a five shilling (25p) postal order.

The accused is Charlie Rowe as 13-year-old Ronnie Winslow, a respectful and deeply loved son sent off to train for a career in the Navy. Rather than accept the inevitable opprobrium, his respectable family fights back, with Henry Goodman as father, Arthur and Naomi Frederick playing suffragette sister, Catherine in the vanguard.

What starts as a minor protest ends up in the House of Commons and then the law courts, these scenes all reported, á là Greek tragedy, but retaining all of the inherent drama.

However the cost of the best advocate in the country is far greater than the family's relatively meagre wealth can stand.

Goodman is unforgettable, seemingly ageing and failing physically before our eyes as the stresses and strains of the legal battle play out. This drives his far from bright wife, Deborah Findlay's Grace, to distraction, while their older children respectively lose a prospective marriage and university degree to the cause.

Only cheery, if rather stereotyped maid, Violet given gleeful mischief by Wendy Nottingham, rises above it all.

The cost seems worthwhile as supercilious Sir Robert Morton is clearly a genius, if too "fish-like" for comfort. Aided by the writer, and director Lindsay Posner, Peter Sullivan somehow makes us care about a man who places his own interests rather higher than is fashionable in these egalitarian times. He excels in his opening sally, cruelly browbeating young Ronnie in an effort to satisfy himself of the lad's guilt or innocence.

For those that might question the likelihood of such events, it is worth mentioning that the moving, and at times downright thrilling, plot is based on the real-life experiences of an Osborne naval cadet George Archer-Shee, who had little time to enjoy his victory, perishing in the Great War while still a teenager.

The Winslow Boy triumphs because it combines the tension of a well-written legal drama with human issues but above all, anatomises the selfless belief in right that is all too lacking on stage and in life today.

This looks like yet another big hit for Kevin Spacey, who now has the measure of his theatre and its audiences, which is quite a feat in these economically straitened times.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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