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A CurtainUp Review
The Winslow Boy
Lindsay Posner's Fine London Production Arrives at the Roundabout's American Airline Theater
By Elyse Sommer
As the play's dynamic barrister Sir Robert Morton mounts a strong case to get Ronnie Winslow, the young naval cadet accused of stealing a five shilling postal order exonerated, so Posner has once again mounted a production that makes a strong case for the pleasures to be had from a really solid old-fashioned play .
The Roundabout Company is fortunate that Peter McKintosh has recreated his set for Winslow home to the American Air Lines Theater where it's lit with mood supportive flair by David Lander. McKintosh has also recreated the stylish and true to the Edwardian period costumes for the American cast. But this is not just another of the good to look at period drama. The Winslow Boy has something to say about justice and familial loyalty and pride that makes it more than a cut above what at first glance like may seem a live theater version of Masterpiece Theater evocations of the Edwardian era.
Rattigan's story is as Lizzie Loveridge pointed out in her London review ( The Review) is exceptionally well-structured. The playwright has maneuvered a fine balance between humor and high drama and concluded each act with its own climax. Those bang-up finales to each act remind me of a time long ago when one of my clients was commissioned to write novelettes for a London women's magazine. The stories were to be serialized over three or four issues. Discussions of these assignments always ended with the editor's reminder to be sure to write "a good curtain" for each issue's story. She could have used Rattigan's script as a fine example since it delivers a dramatic "curtain" for each of its four acts.
The petty theft charge that gets 15-year-old Ronnie's sent home from a prestigious naval academy makes him not just the title character but the plot trigger. But the linchpin character is his father Arthur Winslow, the retired banker whose determination to vindicate his son changes the entire Winslow family's life.
The upshot of Rattigan's story that was inspired by an actual case is a courtroom drama complete with a charismatic legal practitioner (Sir Robert Morton, also modeled on an actual barrister). But it's one that never leaves the well appointed Winslow drawing room which allows us to see and understand every character entering that single set. While Arthur Winslow remains resolute in his battle for right to be done, we also see him become not just physically but emotionally vulnerable as the rising costs and notoriety of the case take their toll of the family's comfortable and peaceful existence. Roger Rees gives an extraordinarily rich performance that depicts every nuance of the stern but affectionate patriarch's increasing physical and emotional vulnerability.
But while this is essentially Rees's show, the entire ensemble — even the essentially walk on part of a reporter (Meredith Forlenza is Miss Barnes) representing the rising tabloid press latching on to the Winslow case — is superbly developed by the playwright and performed by the current cast.
Charlotte Parry is likable and convincing as Catherine, the 30-year-old politically liberal suffragette daughter. She lets us see the strong-minded new woman who has nevertheless fallen in love with a very conventional young army officer, an alliance that threatens to fall prey to her unwavering support of her father. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is also very effective as Arthur's lovely and loving wife, especially in a scene when she confronts her husband on what she has come to see as a fight that even if successful will be won at a cost out of proportion to the normality the family has lost.
As the boy at the heart of the story, Spencer Davis Milford makes an impressive debut. We first see him as the terrified, discombobulated Ronnie sent home with a letter detailing his alleged theft. After weathering the grueling interrogation by the haughty barrister Sir Robert Morton he emerges as a quite happy student at another good school who, were it not for his father, would probably have forgotten the stolen postal order incident. He's also quite funny during a scene where he keeps nodding off as his father insists on reading the newspaper account on the latest turn of events to him.
Zachary Booth captures the fun loving spirit of Ronnie's older brother Dickie, bit also his resentment at having to leave Oxford because his father needs the annual fees for the court battle. Another regular member of the household though she's not a relation, is Violet the maid. But this is no standard issue maid shades a requisite part of any period play. Her fate is also closely tied to the case and Henny Russell brings the required warmth and humor to this role.
Of the three Non-Winslow men who figure importantly, the one who rivets whenever he appears is Alessandro Nivola's marvelously complex Sir Robert Morton. He's a delicious mix of obnoxious superiority and charisma and the tension between him and Catherine is sure to make romantic members of the audience yearn for his admiration for her to go beyond his compliments of her hat.
The other two men are John Watherstone and Desmund Curry. Watherstone is Catherine's fiance John Watherstone. Chandler Williams, manages to portray him as both reasonably charming and yet make the outcome of the engagement neither surprising or all that tragic. The always excellent Michael Cumpsty is delightful as a gone to seed star cricket player, who's now a solicitor who's madly but hopelessly in love with Catherine
Of course given the time frame of this fight for the honor of one family, its happy ending is doomed to be followed by a much larger battle with greater sacrifices demanded on many British families. As noted in another review of another Winslow Boy production (review ) The real Ronnie Winslow a boy named George Arher-Shee saw his name clearing suit happily topped with a substantial compensation payment by the Admiralty. But less happily, he joined the army and was killed in the first battle of Ypres at the end of 1914.