Melissa Blease reviews The Winslow Boy, on at Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday 10 March
In 1908, 13-year-old George Archer-Shee, a cadet at the Royal Naval College at Osborne on the Isle of Wight, was accused of stealing a postal order to the value of 5d (around £28 in today’s money) from a fellow student and summarily expelled. In 1946, British dramatist Terence Rattigan wrote The Winslow Boy, inspired by the real-life events that followed Archer-Shee’s accusation. Last month, the Birmingham Repertory Theatre unveiled its revival of a play that puts justice/injustice, family values and political hypocrisy in the spotlight of a drama that’s as relevant to modern audiences today as it was to the upper-middle-class Archer-Shee family all those years ago – and it’s a simply stunning production.
Given that we’re currently marking the centenary of (some) women gaining the right to vote, it’s fitting that Dorothea Myer-Bennett is thoroughly engaging throughout in her role as Catherine Winslow, sister to Ronnie (the expelled cadet) and daughter of Grace and Arthur (of whom more later).
Catherine represents the ‘New Woman’ of the Edwardian era: part of the suffragette movement campaigning for votes for women, she’s set to undergo a personal trial of her own as she supports her father in her family’s struggle to clear Ronnie’s name, becoming increasingly forced to question her own notions of privilege, fate and injustice as she does so.
Myer-Bennett’s depiction of an intelligent, independent, wholly humane advocate of human rights and arch proponent of family life is perceptive, considerate and accomplished; Catherine may be the anchor that holds her family fast as the storm of a national controversy rages around them, but her thoughtful vulnerability is palpable at all times.
Meanwhile, Catherine’s gentle, soft-hearted mother Grace (an exceptionally sensitive, consistently credible performance by Tessa Peake-Jones) offers context and contrast to her daughter’s character as she keeps the conflicting best interests of each member of her family at heart throughout their ordeal.
Both of these rivetingly strong roles work in perfect intellectual harmony with the characters who wear the trousers. Aden Gillett as the incisive, firm but scrupulously fair patriarch Arthur is robust and fallible in equal measure, fortified in very different ways by both his wife and his daughter as he struggles emotionally and physically to keep up with both the pressure on his household and the changing times.
Endorsing Arthur’s belief that not only justice but ‘right’ must be done, Timothy Watson as the highly esteemed barrister (and bewitchingly compelling, dictatorial autocrat) Sir Robert Morton is a sheer joy to behold – his gripping ‘test’ cross-examination of Arthur towards the end of act one in particular is a magnificent performance indeed.
Ultimately, however, we are on ensemble territory here, and as strong as the main players are (and they’re exceptionally strong), the production would be nothing without Theo Bamber as the moderately ditzy good-time boy (and elder Winslow son) Dickie, Soo Drouet as the giddy housekeeper/maid (and sorta family friend) Violet, Geff Francis as amiable family lawyer Desmond Curry and, of course, Misha Butler as the affable young boy who may (or may not – you decide) have committed the crime that caused the rumpus in the first place.
The Winslow Boy is sincere, engrossing, and poignant; elegantly staged, exquisitely directed and impeccably executed – the Birmingham Repertory Theatre have more than “let right be done” to one of Rattigan’s most remarkable accomplishments.