Sir Terence Rattigan belonged to a generation of playwrights, who, before the age of Angry Young Men and kitchen sink drama, valued carefully crafted plays in which character and plot took precedence over social comment. It is therefore surprising, on revisiting this superb revival by Christopher Morahan, to see how relevant his play, The Winslow Boy, is to contemporary issues. Our current predilection to matters touching on human rights and, in particular, the balance of individual rights against the demands and interests of the State, is at the heart of it.
The play, written in 1946 and based on an actual case dating back to the first decade of the 20th century, has been revived many times - too many some would say - but, I suspect, never as well as in the current Chichester production.
Edward Hardwicke, well known to television watchers as Dr Watson, plays the father of young Ronnie Winslow. Ronnie (Nicholas Deigman) is summarily expelled, after a cursory investigation, from naval college for allegedly stealing and cashing a five-shilling postal order form another cadet. His father, convinced of his innocence, is prepared to suffer a disruption of his middle class family harmony and a depletion of both his finances and his own health to pursue the case. He retains leading barrister and Member of Parliament, Sir Robert Morton (David Rintoul), to press the Government to reopen the case and permit a proper trial. It turns out that both men need, eventually, to make considerable personal sacrifices to support their convictions.
Hardwicke (echoing the performance given by his illustrious father, Sir Cedric Hardwicke in the 1950 film version) gives to the part exquisite tenderness, understanding and determination while Rintoul is entirely convincing as the aloof advocate, avoiding the grand gestures sometimes associated with the role. His deadly inquisition of the young boy before taking on the brief, culminating in the throwaway remark, "He is plainly innocent" is outstanding.
Yet this is a courtroom drama without a courtroom. The progress of the case through its various stages is reported through the newspapers and the true trial is that of the individual family members whose relationships are put to the test as the result of the sacrifices they must make to see the case through. In particular, Elizabeth Dermot Walsh impresses as Ronnie's older sister, Kate. She forgoes her impending marriage to the cause and effectively prevents the family from disintegrating. Her underlying insecurity is masked by strength of character and a determination that "right be done". She is utterly compelling.
It is perhaps invidious to select only these performances, since there is a cast of 10 principal performers, all of whom provide a wonderful demonstration of ensemble playing within Simon Higlett's attractive and well-dressed set. Will Adamsdale as the carefree older brother and Osmund Bullock's lovelorn solicitor strike home in particular.
The play itself, through modern eyes, is not without fault. Rattigan's view of the upstairs-downstairs world of Edwardian England is marked by brittle, acerbic, stiff-upper-lip dialogue in which the upcoming Great War is described as a "bit of a scrap" and a weak and lily-livered fiancé, as a "bit of a bad hat". Nevertheless, even today, this does not diminish the impact of the piece; it's a delight to hear well-constructed sentences and grand speeches beautifully articulated as they are here.
The Winslow Boy still has something to say, and, in this production is pure entertainment. Unmissable.