‘Let right be done.’ That motto is the overriding sentiment of Terence Rattigan’s 1946 play The Winslow Boy and the phrase that should make wise directors and actors tread carefully if they want to secure the powerful and avoid the downright fingers-down-the-throat sickly.
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t optimistic when I saw the billboard of Tessa Peake-Jones and Aden Gillet posing as the justice-seeking Winslow parents outside Theatre Royal Bath, but it wasn’t wholly down to them or the photographer but an absolutely dire, amateurish production I once saw (and wish I’d walked out of) at The Oxford Playhouse many moons ago. So badly was this principled British play handled and performed that it scarred me for life and marred my respect of Rattigan, something I had little hope of being restored during this revival by Mark Goucher and Gavin Kalin in association with Birmingham Repertory Theatre.
Direct from Chichester Festival Theatre and Birmingham Rep, my first impressions may have been positive enough, but as we all know, a good set isn’t going to rescue a bad production. The entire drama, based on a real-life event, covers two years in the days preceding the First World War, with all the action taking place in the Winslow family’s drawing room (Michael Taylor), with smart Morris-style furnishings, a gramophone belonging to the eldest son, Dickie (Theo Bamber) and dual doors that are used to great effect throughout. Violet (Soo Drouet), the long-serving but wholly untrained parlour maid, further helps to illustrate the family’s middle class station, something the lady of the house, Grace (Tessa Peake-Jones) complains about, whilst being too fond of her to turf her out.
The family are delighted to celebrate their suffragette daughter, Catherine’s (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) engagement to John Watherstone (William Belchambers), and welcome home the youngest of the three Winslow children, 14 year-old naval cadet Ronnie (Misha Butler in his stage début), although it’s soon revealed that he’s been sacked from The Royal Naval College for stealing a postal order, something which leads to turbulent times for all. Regardless of the potential embarrassment to the family or the financial risk, Mr Winslow embarks upon a legal suit that turns out to be both lengthy and expensive, with the audience seeing only the exhaustion and financial stress this causes the family. Ronnie is almost forgotten in the chaos despite the relentless fight to clear his name.
In the end right is done, along with justice to one of Rattigan’s best known works, due to perfectly pitched direction from Rachel Kavanaugh, an all-round strong cast, and three exceptional performances; Bristol Old Vic-trained Myer-Bennett is spectacularly feisty as Catherine, whose engagement to Watherstone is the fortunate sacrifice of the scandal enveloping her family and jeopardising her dowry; Aden Gillett as the arthritic but no less upright father, Arthur Winslow, and Timothy Watson as the famed, unapologetically arrogant barrister Sir Robert Morton who is called upon to represent Ronnie and refuses to give up, partly because he has clearly taken a shine to the passionately moralistic Catherine. It could almost have been renamed The Winslow Girl, and if Myer-Bennett doesn’t become a huge star I’ll eat my hat. I didn’t expect to say this, but this classy revival has restored my love of Rattigan and converted me to The Winslow Boy – I thank you. Rather amusingly, it’s just about to run at The Oxford Playhouse. I do hope people go to see this production!
The reviewer saw The Winslow Boy at Theatre Royal Bath where it runs from 5-10 March 2018. The production continues at Oxford Playhouse, The Lowry, Brighton Theatre Royal and Richmond Theatre. Running time 2 hours 30 minutes including an interval. Production images by Alastair Muir.