A compelling drama by a great English playwright arrives at the Old Vic
On the face of it, Terrence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy hardly seems like an obvious choice for modern audiences. Set entirely in a gentile Kensington drawing room, this subtle, scrupulous play is a courtroom drama without the courtroom and a love story without the passion. But centered on one father’s quest for justice for his young son, it actually strikes a cord with current events and proves to be a touching and engrossing drama with plenty of laughs and wonderfully tender moments.
It is based on the true story of a 14-year-old naval cadet who was expelled from his college for the alleged theft of a five-shilling postal order, and his father’s drawn-out battle to clear his name during 1908-1911. Rattigan has mixed fact with fiction for his play, shunting the story forward so that it is set just before the First World War.
Blocked from bringing a case against the college to court, the family resort to appealing to the King for a Petition of Right, hoping he will authorise a trial on the principle of ‘Let it Right Be Done’. The trials happen off stage while the audience sees instead the terrible human (and financial) cost of this quest for justice for the Winslow family.
Terence Rattigan (1911-1977) clearly knew how to create a perfectly crafted scene, evinced particularly when the brusquely brilliant barrister who takes on the case, Sir Robert Morton, subjects the disgraced cadet Ronnie to a brutal cross-examination in the boy’s living room. And Rattigan is also clever in the way he reveals the emotional toll of the struggle beneath the characters’ unceasing English reserve.
This is exemplified by the irritable, charismatic Morton, whose barriers of cold formality are slowly worn away. The exchanges between him and the vehement Suffragette daughter Catherine (excellently played by Naomi Frederick) as they come to know and respect one another are charged with an undercurrent of feeling that is belied by their words.
Henry Goodman as Ronnie’s father Arthur Winslow is also rather wonderful, seeming to crumble before our eyes as his struggle to clear his son’s name takes a huge toll on his health and unwavering faith in justice. The scene between father and son when Ronnie confesses he has been “sacked” from college is quietly moving and poignant.
As for the play’s relevance to the news today, it is perhaps a leap to draw parallels with the current press standards row. But when Arthur asks what he should say to waiting journalists, Morton coolly replies: “I hardly think it matters. Whatever you say will have little bearing on what they write.” Now that is prescient, surely.
The Winslow Boy runs at the Old Vic Theatre until 25 May. Tickets: 0844 871 7628; oldvictheatre.com