This is a marvellous production of a masterful play…an old-fashioned drawing room drama, swaddled in a huge amount of humour, overlaid with riveting tension, and solidly based on a disturbingly true story.
The 13-year-old son of a respectable family is sent down from Naval College, accused of stealing a five-shilling postal order. His family believe he would never do such a thing and spend two years taking on the might of The Admiralty to clear his name – at huge personal cost to themselves. It was a celebrated front-page court case in its day.…one that divided parliament and the nation.
The real story happened some time before the First World War. Working with the press cuttings, Terrence Rattigan staged his dramatized version of events in 1946; a brave time to fire shots at a Navy that had contributed so much to the winning of the Second World War. But supposedly fire-proof establishments continue to trample over innocent individuals today; which is why this play – though tightly tied to its time – doesn’t feel in the least bit outdated.
Fiction strays from fact just a little. “I wanted to create, not recreate”, Rattigan declared. So, he moves the action a few years forward to the eve of World War One … which allows him to question why the Navy this more bothered about five bob than the building of the Bismarck. And he opens out the play with other social issues. He gives the Winslow Boy a wastrel brother, distracted from his Oxford studies by the latest ‘Bunny Hug’ dance craze; a steadfast suffragette sister; and a loyal, if gossipy, maid; all of whom are likely to suffer in the quest to preserve his honour.
The drawing room is large and turquoise, and clever lighting allows us to see through the walls to the portico of Osborne Naval College on the Isle of Wight. (Though, on press night, the lighting wasn’t quite clever enough for us not to see it when we weren’t meant to).
No matter; because in Rachel Kavanaugh’s production, it’s Sarah Bird’s casting that counts.
The eleven-strong team is superbly led by Aden Gillett’s father figure … who sets a surprisingly funny undercurrent of droll humour and unshakable family love coursing through the play. His lines are decent enough, but he has a wonderful range of looks and nods, and a remarkable knack of fine-timing his neat turns of phrase; which makes the most even-handed sentence verge on the hilarious. But when Ronnie arrives home with his awful letter of dismissal, his faithful father vows to make any sacrifice required to publish his son’s innocence before the world. (I wished I’d had him as a dad).
He hires the most expensive advocate in the country to defend his son. In breezes Timothy Watson as Sir Robert Morton, on his way to dine with the Crown Prince; a steely, superior, staring man – with the grace of a cold fish. He rounds on poor Ronnie (an accomplished performance by debutante Misha Butler) and gives him a good grilling before deciding whether or not to take the case. It’s a pivotal passage in which the sparks fly so terrifyingly, the boy has to duck and dive. But he never dodges the truth. It’s one of the most electrifying scenes in Forties theatre – and they do it superbly.
The other outstanding performance is by Dorothea Myer-Bennett as the older sister Catherine who captures the dilemma – felt by so many women at that time – of not wanting to be left on the shelf, but also yearning to make their mark as a free-thinking woman. Her duel causes are justice for women…and her brother.
The wider, lasting implications of both campaigns shine clearly though the play. But there is a higher concept. As the eminent lawyer says, getting justice is a legality. Ensuring “Right be done” is an emotional prerequisite.
Having spent much of the play distrusting each other, there is a glimmer of mutual admiration between Catherine and Sir Robert in the closing scene….and a foretaste of the future.
“Maybe I’ll see you in ‘The House’ one day”, he says, “up in the gallery”. “Maybe you will”, she replies. “But I won’t be in the gallery…I’ll be across the floor”.
It’s a great play; expertly done.