Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy, loosely based on a true story, takes us to pre-First World War London, charting a father’s battle to secure a fair trial for his naval cadet son, who is accused of stealing a postal order. The father and his allies repeatedly stress that the matter around which the play revolves is not a trivial one, and that there are larger issues at stake – justice, and the rights of the individual versus the Establishment. However, this is at its heart a drama about a single family brought face to face with the question of what it is willing to sacrifice to prove the innocence of one of its members. The domestic nature of the action is in fact the source of much of the play’s strength: by giving us real people and familiar situations with which we can engage, the true weight of what is happening is brought home. During the two years spanned by the action, health is put at risk, relationships deteriorate, and the threat of financial ruin looms as the Winslows find themselves – not all of them entirely willingly – steadily more embroiled.
The highlight of the evening is Timothy West as Arthur Winslow. He brings a delicious dry wit to the role, and while never jeopardizing the piece’s overall seriousness, ensures that even the most sombre of scenes does not lapse into melancholy. Claire Cox captures the audience’s sympathies as Winslow’s feisty yet vulnerable suffragette daughter Catherine, who finds herself facing some of the hardest decisions in the play, and Adrian Lukis is a splendidly supercilious Sir Robert Morton, the lawyer who finally succeeds in bringing the case to court. There are also some fine performances among the supporting cast: Roger May is touching as solicitor and family friend Desmond Curry, and the emotional tension is heightened by John Sackville as Catherine's fiance John Watherstone. While I must admit that Hugh Wyld as the eponymous Ronnie Winslow didn’t entirely convince me he was thirteen, he was charming as the emerging young man-about-town of the later acts.
This is a thoroughly engaging piece of theatre: exciting at times, moving to the point of being heart-wrenching at others, but rarely without humour. Stephen Unwin's sensitive direction brings out the nuances of the work, and enhanced by impeccable costumes and a lavish set, this adds up to a highly polished production of a finely crafted play.