Words by Lucy Mounfield / Production shots by Alastair Muir
Having read Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy during a long summer a few years ago, I have been waiting to see a stage revival ever since. So, I was pleased to see the play on the listings for the Birmingham REP.
Rattigan’s plays rarely require large sets or technical apparatus, it is the story and the way the characters interact that is so appealing about his work. Yet, when I first read The Winslow Boy I struggled to see how the Edwardian period and antebellum tensions could be adapted for a modern audience.
The basic plot – a young naval cadet, Ronnie Winslow (Misha Butler), has been accused of stealing a five-shilling postal order, which he denies – first appears as rather a dull premise for a two and a half hour play. Indeed, Rattigan and his writing style fell out of favour during the 60s, and this has consequently somewhat tarnished the reputation of his plays.
However, there is a striking amount of depth and layering with which Rattigan imbues a situation. Far from being dull, he adds humour; characters are defined and grow with the story. Tension builds throughout The Winslow Boy, as each person loses something in the fight for Ronnie’s innocence.
The Winslow Boy‘s director, Rachel Kavanaugh, has a firm grip on the principles and themes running through Rattigan’s storytelling, as she makes her stage production resonate with a modern audience. The play manages to show us the intimate lives of the Winslow family, whilst projecting the social and political struggles of the early 20th century and at the same time echoing today’s resurgent feminist movement.
The nuance of Rattigan’s writing is equally matched by the actors on stage. 2018 marks the centenary of voting rights for women and this is something that the play very touchingly points to with the character of Catherine (Dorothea Myer-Bennett), Ronnie’s sister, who is an ardent suffragette. Myer-Bennett’s portrayal takes us through a range of emotional registers, and the story, which takes place over several years, gives the character time to develop. We see her strident determination to confront injustice, the stubbornness she shares with her father, alongside the Catherine’s conflict between seeing the case through and her relationship with her equivocating fiancée (William Belchambers).
For me, Myer- Bennett and Aden Gillett, who portrays her father, Arthur, form the glue that keeps the play together. Their acting exudes confidence of character, driving the pace of the story along while vividly bringing Rattigan’s writing to life. As a loving, yet authoritative, father figure, Arthur seeks to exonerate his son of petty wrongdoing seemingly at any cost – for to him, it is the principle of the thing that matters; no matter that he is bankrupting his family over the theft of five shillings and rapidly succumbing to arthritis. Gillett is superb in displaying the crippling effects of this ailment, developing a stoop, hunch back and bowed legs until finally he takes to a wheelchair.
The mother, Grace Winslow (Tessa Peake-Jones), reminds me of the slightly naive Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and is a good foil for the more assertive characters, balancing comedy with pathos. The impassioned speech to her husband at the start of Act Two is a poignant reminder of the impact the play’s events have on the family and their now fractured relationships.This is made more so by the presence of Ronnie Winslow, who is gently sleeping on a chaise longue. His youth is made shockingly apparent, which makes the scenes with the Winslows’ lawyer, Sir Robert Morton (Timothy Watson), all the more uncomfortable to watch. Butler does well to play a 13-15-year-old; his body language ranges from shy and nervous to excitable, which further reinforces his childish innocence.
Timothy Watson gives a commanding portrayal of Morton; the performance is gripping from beginning to end and treads the fine line between caricature and authenticity. His stiff and domineering body language creates a claustrophobic atmosphere in Act Two, ramping up the intensity of the Winslow trial.
The set is a typical, yet detailed, Edwardian living room – comfortable, decorative and decorous. Scene changes are punctuated with a backdrop of architectural columns that hint at the world of labyrinthine government bureaucracy in which the Winslows have found themselves.
At two and a half hours, The Winslow Boy does not feel over long. Rachel Kavanaugh and her cast present an absorbing and thrilling production that I thoroughly enjoyed. I would happily recommend this revival of a classic stage play to anyone, whether a previous fan of Rattigan’s writing or not.
The Winslow Boy runs at the Birmingham REP until Saturday 3rd March. For full details, including all performance times and prices, visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk/whats-on/the-winslow-boy
For more from the Birmingham REP, including full event listings and online ticket sales, visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk