The Winslow Boy - Review

Terence Rattigan, once the darling of the West End until the arrival of John Osborne and the other angry young men in the mid-fifties, fell out of favour with audiences and critics. His work was considered to be dated and only suitable for those legendary maiden aunts who must not be shocked.

This play, set just prior to the outbreak of World War I, shows just how wrong those critics were and continues the welcome revival of interest in the playwright’s work. It reconfirms his talent and masterly craftsmanship.

His characters come across as real people and are far from caricatures. The writing demonstrates a true understanding of feelings and emotions and yet, in the midst of serious argument, he provides witty interjections that would have made Oscar Wilde jealous.

Inspired by a real-life case, the play centres round Ronnie Winslow, a 13 year old Naval Cadet, who is wrongly accused of stealing a five shilling postal order, the property of a fellow cadet. His father, believing his protestations of innocence, embarks on a mission to get a judicial hearing in order to clear Ronnie’s name. It becomes a long and costly battle against the Estabishment. – the cost not merely financial but also on the lives of the family. His own health suffers; his wife turns against him; his daughter has her engagement broken whilst his other son, Dickie, has to leave Oxford.

Director Gerry McCrudden and his creative team came up with a first class production that oozed quality from the moment the audience set eyes on the set that recreated, beautifully, an Edwardian drawing room. I liked the attention paid to detail where the passing of time was reflected by subtle changes to the furnishings – flowers, cushions etc changed.

McCrudden has a proven track record of fine productions for NVT – members will recall “Biloxi Blues”, ”Dancing at Lughnasa” and ” It’s a Wonderful Life”. He has the knack of getting to the heart of the text and has it delivered as the playwright intended. Yet he is not afraid to add subtle touches of his own. And of course he knows how to pick a cast! Once again he drew out superb individual performances from his actors as well as setting them amongst an example of fine ensemble playing. There was little with the direction to find fault apart from a couple of occasions where standing positions interfered with sight lines.

As Arthur Winslow the boy’s father, John Tolputt gave a strong yet understated performance that fully conveyed the man’s stubborn determination as well as the tenderness required in the scenes with his daughter, Kate. His droll delivery maximised the humour in the part.

Nikki Dunsford brought to the part of Grace Winslow an air of gentle mischievousness which evaporated with a passion when the loyal support for her husband finally snaps.

Daughter Kate Winslow is a modern thinking woman who works for the advancement of the Suffragette Movement. Emma Hutton was excellent -blending the character’s feistiness with a softer feminine side.

Her frivolous brother Dickie, played with gusto by Fintan Shevlin who managed to create sympathy for the silly ass character when his idle world collapses on being told he can no longer be kept at Oxford. Louis Mallen-Curtis completes the family as Ronnie and gives a fine portrayal of the innocent victim.

Tom Slater brings just the right amount of mild pompousness and stuffiness to Kate’s fiancé, John. Kate’s other suitor is the family solicitor, Desmond Curry. He is a beautifully drawn character straight out of a Chekhov play and Simon Messingham plays him as such. He gets the right mixture of comedy and pathos – a sheer delight to watch.

There was more delight in watching NVT’s two distinguished thespian Dames return to the stage. Sheelagh Baker’s nosey journalist who is more interested in the family’s furnishings rather than details of the ongoing cast provided plenty of understated visual comedy. There was more comedy from Janet Hewlett-Davies as she almost stole the show as Violet, the untrained maid. A lovely performance that was kept well in check and never allowed to go over the top. The biggest of the night came from just a look she gave.

The role of Sir Robert Morton, the barrister who takes up the case for the Winslows, is a key one. The decision to cast Colin Elmer in the part was a bold stroke and one of genius. The part is usually played by a much older actor. His youthful looks brought a sexual frisson to the verbal exchanges between him and Kate. Their last scene together had an added edge not sensed in other productions. Elmer’s was a bravura performance especially in his interrogation of Ronnie. The coldness and ferocity he generated brought to mind Sherlock Holmes –Jeremy Brett’s not Cumberbatch’s. It was all there in the steely voice and the looks.

Completing the cast was Mark Hyndman in the spit and a cough part of Fred, the photographer – a part that was over in a flash!

By Barrie Jerram