The Winslow Boy
By Terence Rattigan
The Birmingham REP
The Birmingham REPs production of The Winslow Boy, carefully and purposefully directed by the theatres former Artistic Director, Rachel Kavanaugh, is a charming and inviting piece. Rattigan’s flawless dialogue gives each and every member of the cast plenty to get their teeth into, moving with such fluidity that you disappear into the parlour room of the Winslow family.
Ronnie Winslow, a young thirteen-year-old boy, has returned home at the start of the play. Accused of stealing a postal order from a fellow cadet at the Royal Naval College, he is ultimately expelled when no one believes him. The story follows his father Arthur’s efforts to prove his sons innocence to what eventually becomes a trial of national interest.
Aden Gillett as patriarch Arthur Winslow delivers a moving, sincere performance, with a fine-tuned dry humour that makes him endearing from the start, he has a conviction that sustains until the end. Misha Butler’s performance as Ronnie Winslow is not simply that of a pitiable young boy. His protests of innocence are threaded with light and shade, with moments of contained but bold resistance occasionally bubbling up through the helplessness. Especially in the face of the indomitable Sir Robert Morton, the man Ronnie’s father has gotten to represent their case (played with candour and class by Timothy Watson.) Another memorable performance comes in the form of Ronnie’s brilliant and outspoken older sister Catherine. A champion for women’s suffrage and her brothers cause, always ready with a clever quip and kind ear with barely a moment between, played brilliantly by Dorothea Myer-Bennett.
The plays charm is largely thanks to the wonderful humour, perfectly executed by the cast – it is in no way jarring against the gravity of the character’s situation (which you come to appreciate is not so simple as an act of petty theft) and only serves to bring you closer into their lives. The comedy that varies from light jokes to blistering observations about each other punctuates the drama so effortlessly that the Winslow family and their friends are immediately endearing and ultimately believable.
But on the matter of belief, you find yourself drawn in by an intensity that almost catches you unawares, from all sides. Not every character believes Ronnie is innocent, and you don’t necessarily want to believe them when they say so. But, as Dickie, Ronnie’s older brother, hesitantly puts it, you find yourself looking at it from every side. If it’s true that in a good story nobody is wrong then The Winslow Boy surely goes a step further in managing to get you to believe everybody at once.
The themes of the play, including innocence, justice, and going up against authority, are not isolated to the Winslow’s world of early 1900s Britain. Discussions of these themes and of specific issues such as women’s suffrage, conservative politics, and a variety of other social issues woven into the piece are still very much relevant today. Tessa Peake-Jones, who plays Grace Winslow, the kind and brightening matriarch of the family, and Aden Gillett both commented on The Winslow Boy as a piece for contemporary audiences:
“The dispute is over a postal order but it symbolises so much more… For those of us who feel thwarted by Brexit and Trump, it’s the sense of this vast mountain of injustice and pain that’s affecting the western hemisphere that you feel you’re powerless against. Particularly now, points of principle and fighting for what’s right seem very important.”
– Aden Gillett
“It doesn’t feel like a dated play… It feels very relevant to today. Fighting for justice’s sake – or whatever your principle is – is timeless. So is the idea of a family standing behind someone. They are dilemmas people will still be fighting in 500 years time.”
– Tessa Peake-Jones
At its core The Winslow Boy is a stark observation of right vs wrong, the play not only handles the varying opinions of the characters but also the wider social question of how far we are willing to go to stand up for what is right. And, as we see Arthur Winslow and his family sacrifice almost everything to prove Ronnie’s innocence, how far is too far?
In the end, there is no need to ask, the answer is clear and quoted often: “Let right be done.”
The Winslow Boy is on at The Birmingham REP from 21st February to 3rd March.