“Which of us knows the truth about himself?”
Following the huge success of his centenary year in 2011, it seems safe to say that Terence Rattigan has now been fully rehabilitated back into the theatrical fold, somewhere near the top of the list of twentieth century British dramatists. One of his major plays that did not appear in London that year was The Winslow Boy so it is to that 1946 work that the Old Vic has turned, with Lindsay Posner directing a quality cast including Henry Goodman and Deborah Findlay.
The Winslow boy himself is Ronnie, a 14 year old cadet at the Royal Naval college at Osborne who is expelled in shame after being accused of the theft of a five shilling postal order. His father, retired banker Arthur, takes up the mantle of defending his son’s honour but the huge legal case that snowballs out from this affair has ramifications far beyond whether Ronnie is actually guilty or not.
For though the centre of much of the action is the courthouse, the play is set exclusively in the Winslows’ drawing room, stylishly designed by Peter McKintosh and beautifully lit by Tim Mitchell. So the focus turns inwards on how this relentless pursuit of doing the right thing affects the various members of the family, throwing into question exactly what is an acceptable price. From the highly respected lawyer Sir Robert Morton engaged to fight the case to Ronnie’s siblings, the fiercely intelligent suffragette Catherine and the altogether more flighty Dickie, to their long-serving maid Violet, Rattigan investigates the sacrifices they have to make with his measured humanity and utterly elegant grace.
The biggest price is paid by ailing patriarch Arthur whose health, over the near-two-year period of the play, visibly deteriorates even as his resolve remains strong, Henry Goodman giving a highly affecting account of a man hard up against the establishment, fighting for the rights of the individual. And as his wife, Deborah Findlay balances Grace’s capricious nature against a growing concern for the fabric of her family, with her mellifluous voice loaded with just as much emotion as entertainment. But where Posner really succeeds, especially in the cracking first act, is in developing a genuinely convincing family dynamic – the gentle bickering between husband and wife and their dealings with their children is a subtle masterpiece in unfussy but assured theatre.
Charlie Rowe brings the blithe indifference to Ronnie that almost makes a mockery of the efforts around him and Naomi Frederick, highly elegant in Edwardian dress, strikes a commanding presence on the stage as the forthright Catherine, very close to her father and to the trial and all too aware of the personal cost she surrenders. But it was Nick Hendrix’s Dickie, and maybe this is a middle child thing, who came across as the most tragic, endearingly puppyish even as his carefree student days are taken from him and he is dispatched to Reading, the attention of the family never quite landing on him throughout.
Wendy Nottingham makes a vibrant study of the ever-faithful Violet and Peter Sullivan’s authoritative Sir Robert does a marvellous job of imposing the necessary gravitas, especially in a corking interrogation of the young Ronnie. But Rattigan, and this production, never lets us forget the melancholy heart that lies at it all – the inequality of loving someone fiercely yet unrequitedly, the shadow of WWI, even the encroachment of popular media into personal lives. Despite its seemingly traditional exteriors, this is a wonderfully fresh take on Rattigan’s masterly play and ought to be a resounding success for all concerned.
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £4
Booking until 25th May