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The Winslow Boy

by on 9 May 2018

The Pursuit of Fair Play

The Winslow Boy

by Terence Rattigan

Chichester Festival Theatre Productions at Richmond Theatre until 12th May, then tour continues until 19th May

A review by Eleanor Marsh

The Winslow Boy is that most English of English plays. Or is it? On the surface it is the story of Ronnie Winslow, the fourteen-year-old naval cadet accused of stealing a postal order and subsequently becoming the centre of a media circus as his trial becomes more and more high profile. And what could be more English than the pursuit of fair play. “Let Right Be Done” is the rallying cry to arms.

Rattigan was fascinated by famous criminal trials and The Winslow Boy is based on the true-life story of George Archer-Shee, who was accused of the same crime, also represented by arguably the most prominent barrister of the day and made the headlines. In lesser hands this would be a pedestrian retelling of a familiar story. Rattigan’s script, however breathes life into the plot with the introduction of three-dimensional characters. They are aided by some excellent one-liners and the use of sub-plots within the Winslow family dynamic to illustrate both the social conventions of the time and the impact of the trial on a wider circle than just Ronnie and his father, who is the main protagonist in terms of pursuing the case. It is not an accident that over fifty years since it was first produced The Winslow Boy is still attracting large, diverse audiences of theatre-goers. The dialogue and characterisation is strong and the comic one-liners a gift for any actor. This is good entertainment that makes one think.

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Rachel Kavanaugh’s production gallops apace at a furious speed. In the main this is a good thing. This is not a short play and in these times of shortened attention span it is wise to keep it moving. However, the initial dialogue between Arthur Winslow (Aden Gillett) and the maid Violet (Soo Drouet) went at machine gun delivery and although it was not exactly unintelligible it was difficult for even this seasoned theatre-goer to register all that was being said. It was the middle of the first act before we got to a comfortable slow canter, which was pitch perfect.

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The by-product of the moving the dialogue so quickly in the exposition phase of any play is that the scene is not clearly set in the minds of the audience – we are too busy playing catch up with what we have been told. And in the case of this particular play it makes a big difference. The entire premise of this play is not duty or family honour. It is quite simply about a father’s love for his son. Gillett gives a sensitive performance, Misha Butler as Ronnie is excellent throughout the play, and they do have a certain chemistry on stage. BUT – the true affection they have for each other (and that Winslow has for all his children) only comes across at the play’s later stages; the all-important scene that sets up the whole plot is lacking. Because of the speed with which we get there it is all too easy to accept the face value of an Edwardian father wanting to protect the family name and reputation at any cost. At the point I felt I should have tears in my eyes I found myself pondering how they’d get themselves out of this rather major legal pickle.

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The entire play takes place over two years in the same middle class South London drawing room. Top marks to Michael Taylor for detailed, accurate and pleasant on the eye set and costumes. The subtle changes in season and Winslow family fortunes are neatly dealt with by Taylor and lighting designer Tim Lutkin. However, from the stalls seats the projection of what I assumed was the High Court was difficult to see and seemed a little superfluous. I must also confess to being confused by the obviously interior doors. In Act 1 we were led to believe they opened onto the hall and dining room respectively. In Act 2 they inexplicably opened out to an exterior street view. This really did not work and I’m sure I must have missed some key dialogue whilst I was pondering the layout of the house.

Ms Kavanaugh has a knack for making period pieces accessible without dumbing them down and here she succeeds magnificently. Her use of music and the choreographed set changes are inspired, and she is not scared of injecting a little 21st century body language and pronunciation into the play to keep it relevant. She also has an excellent cast on board to deliver those wonderful lines. Tessa Peake-Jones is a warm Grace Winslow who does not fall into the trap of the “flighty” mother hen. She has her feet very much on the ground and gets some of the best laughs of the evening, such is her comic timing and delivery. The all-important character of Sir Robert Morton is a nightmare of a role to cast –he must be austere, sympathetic, supercilious and charming all in one. He also needs to be charismatic with understated sex appeal. Timothy Watson is perfectly cast and gives a fascinating performance of a man at the top of his game but with an empty life.

The Winslow Boy is a classic of the 20th Century by one of our most enduring writers and this is an overall excellent production. What happens to Ronnie Winslow? Is he innocent or guilty? I urge you to buy a ticket whilst you still can and find out.

Eleanor Marsh
May 2018

Photography by Alistair Muir

 

 

 

 

 

From → Drama, Reviews

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