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A CurtainUp London Review
The Winslow Boy
Rattigan's play is based on a real life case in 1910 of a boy, George Archer-Shee, who was accused of stealing a postal order for 5shillings from another boy at the Naval College at Osborne on the Isle of Wight. In the play, 13 year old Ronnie Winslow (Hugh Wyld) is sent home "sacked" or expelled from the school without his parents being told that there is a problem. There is no appeal against the decision because the Admiralty runs the school under naval regulations. Ronnie's father Arthur Winslow (Timothy West) believes in the boy's innocence and hires a prestigious barrister Sir Robert Morton (Adrian Lukis) to petition so that the boy's defence might be heard. The whole family make sacrifices: Dickie Winslow (Thomas Howes), not a very serious student, has to leave Oxford because of the cost and his sister, radical and suffragette supporter, Catherine (Claire Cox) may lose her fiancé John Watherstone (John Sackville) because of her future in-laws attitude to the scandal. Arthur and his wife Grace (Diane Fletcher) make considerable financial adjustments to pay for the case.
Stephen Unwin's direction on The Rose's apron like stage with its Edwardian drawing room set is impressive. Many of the lines take on an amusement never heard before, whether it's Morton complaining about what a hard life members of parliament have, in a week when their expenses form all the news, or a throw away comment on Readingwhich now is full of clubbers. There is so much to amuse in Rattigan's script— tiny asides; for example, when Arthur explains that they are celebrating, his wife tries to get him not to amplify with an anxious wave of her hand. But it is too late "My wife's 54th birthday," he says impervious to her request for discretion about her age. There is a classic comment on the behavior of the press when Catherine asks Sir Robert what she should say. "I hardly think it matters. Whatever you say will have very little bearing on what they write." quips Sir Robert. The evocative sound of a school choir singing Jerusalem punctuates the scenes.
Claire Cox is excellent as the serious minded girl who wants to make the political point that the Admiralty should be answerable for their actions and who actually doesn't care whether Ronnie is innocent or not. Timothy West is kindly and immediately and touchingly supports his son and we see the physical toll the case takes on his health. Adrian Lukis is initially very stiff and severe as the formidable Sir Robert, totally unlike any other part I have seen him in. His first interview with the family and his subsequent interrogation of the boy is the pivotal point of the play. Sarah Flind as the rotund maid Violet steals some of the comedy scenes with her complete lack of artifice in knowing when she should be discreet.
Whether it's the police force or the armed services, the internal investigations, run by them and judged by them are still a cause for concern for people seeking justice or an explanation from outside. This astonishingly makes Rattigan's play topical today. The Winslow Boy is cleverly written so that every scene takes place in the Winslow's drawing room but we hear reports of the letters in the newspapers, a description of the debate in the House of Commons or from Violet, the jubilant scene in court to update us.
The closing scene has the sound of cannon fire as we are reminded that the imminent First World War will change the fate of many young men. George Archer-Shee, the real boy originally accused of taking the postal order, but later cleared and paid £7000 in compensation by the Admiralty, joined the army and was killed in the first battle of Ypres at the end of 1914.
This production of The Winslow Boy is touring until the end of July and is sure to please many audiences.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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