Between 1908 and 1910, the whole country was transfixed by the case of George Archer-Shee, a 13-year-old naval cadet accused of stealing a five-shilling postal order. The efforts of his family and defence council to oppose the might of the Admiralty and clear his name provided a real David and Goliath scenario. Nearly a century on, the hoopla shows that the ability of tabloid journalists to create feverish public interest is nothing new.
In the 1940s, Terence Rattigan was 'so fascinated and moved' by the case that it inspired him to write The Winslow Boy, premiered in 1946, using the facts as a starting point. Moving the action to the eve of the First World War, he created a fictional family for his schoolboy cadet, Ronnie Winslow, to explore the personal price paid by those who pursue the cause of justice to the bitter end.
Christopher Morahan's gripping revival, marking the 25th anniversary of Rattigan's death, makes it clear that there is literally a price. Money, in the form of regular income and allowances, provides security, and when it is eaten away by the costs of the case, everyone in the comfortable Wilmslow household is affected.
Ronnie's devoted father Arthur, played with endearing crustiness by Edward Fox, finds his health deteriorating. Arthur's wife, Grace (a warmly sympathetic Polly Adams), sees her safe social status dwindling and dreads sacking faithful servant Violet. And who could bear to sack Ann Penfold's deliciously guileless parlourmaid?
Ronnie's older siblings suffer too - Dickie (a convincingly louche James Schlesinger) must leave the ease of Oxford to work in a bank and suffragette Kate (by turns cool and fiery in Lucy Akhurst's intelligent reading) risks losing her chance of a happy marriage. Win or lose, young Ronnie himself, whom Daniel Sharman endows with real vulnerability, stands to be branded ("the Winslow Boy"). Even distinguished defence counsel Sir Robert Morton QC (irascibly authoritative Simon Ward) has something to lose ...
Audible gasps from the audience prove the enduring power of Rattigan's play and the dilemmas faced by its characters. The production's strength lies in the ability of Morahan and his cast to draw you into these comfortable middle-class lives and make you care about their disruption. Simon Higlett's set creates a real period family home - with the press and public kept at bay outside!
Rattigan makes us aware that whatever the outcome, the war will inevitably destroy many of these young lives. In real life, George Archer-Shee died at Ypres, aged 19.
- reviewed by Judi Herman (at Guildford's Yvonne Arnaud Theatre)