FringeReview UK 2018
The Winslow Boy directed by Rachel Kavanaugh takes a real family’s case and barrister adding more characters and nudging the action three years nearer the First World War. Michael Taylor’s plushly-appointed turquoise-papered Edwardian drawing room set and costumes are lit by Tim Lutkin with neat touches in lamps and seasonal shifts, with Fergus O’Hare’s unobtrusive background music (not period). Alistair David’s choreography does much to lift the scenes Rattigan shrewdly judges in need of variety. Mark Goucher and Gavin Kalinin Association with Birmingham Repertory Theatre it plays till April 28th and tours till May 19th.
‘Let right be done.’ The Winslow Boy’s keynote rings with a particular ardour in this fire-and-ice revival of Terence Rattigan’s 1946 play about injustice and ‘the tyranny of bureaucracy’ directed by Rachel Kavanaugh which takes a real family’s case and barrister adding more characters and nudging the action three years nearer the First World War. There’s a further edge too in a 2018 revival, with the centenary of women’s partial suffrage. And Suffragist Millicent Fawcett’s statue has just been unveiled in Parliament Square.
Let right be done is where the tensions between defence KC Sir Robert Morton and the sister of the accused Winslow boy, Catharine, palpably explode over this phrase; as much as you can in Michael Taylor’s plushly-appointed turquoise-papered Edwardian drawing room lit by Tim Lutkin with neat touches in lamps and seasonal shifts, with Fergus O’Hare’s unobtrusive background music (not period). Alistair David’s choreography does much to lift the scenes Rattigan shrewdly judges in need of variety.
At the beginning Catharine’s dress uncannily matches that wallpaper (Taylor’s the fine costume designer too; you bet he meant it). At the end Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s incandescent Kate hasn’t so much just removed her from a traditional wallpaper role as draw the whole room to wrap around her, Timothy Watson’s Morton included. Every intricate movement between them is charged: with her Suffragist (not Suffragette) outrage at Morton’s Tory prosecution of union leaders and women agitators, their involuntary but mutual admiration, and then their talk of tears.
In this production you wait not just for those famed words, but watch every move between these two, particularly in the fourth act. With a ringing command Aden Gillet’s justice-seeking father Arthur Winslow matches Watson; his crumpling to arthritis is superlatively done and rivals Myer-Bennett and Watson. As Grace Winslow, Tessa Peake-Jones’ admonitions to husband and daughter on the human cost is finely registered. Both Ronnie’s siblings are forced to make sacrifices, and the father loses health and money. Even faithful maid Violet might be turned out. Rattigan’s Grace articulates the cost, others amplify it. But father and daughter for different reasons remain adamant. As soon as Watson in a hooded stare – and with forensic savagery – dismantles poor Ronnie and then magnificently pronounces ‘the boy is clearly innocent’ you wonder how the end can possibly top that. Rattigan has an answer: shift the focus and mix up political and personal passion.
Misha Butler making a winning debut as Ronnie arrives home but hides in the garden, ashamed at his expulsion from Osborne Naval College when (wrongly as we learn) accused of stealing a five shilling postal order. Satisfied of his innocence, Gillett’s paterfamilias strides into a fight with the crown which after two years he can barely hobble out of. In the meantime his gaming son Dickie (Theo Bamber, cheery with the right degree of carelessness) has had to leave Oxford for a Reading banking job. He eventually joins the Territorials – the action’s moved closer to the war.
Rattigan’s stagecraft unobtrusively strikes when you find brother and sister dancing to Dickie’s gleaming gramophone, belting out Alexander’s Ragtime Band stuffed with a shirt and soft needle to allay sound. It breaks up the potentially static feel of an act, and every interruption and bringing-on of character attests to Rattigan’s clever generosity in spreading key moments throughout the cast with comic touches like forgetfulness – Soo Drouet’s warm and movingly down-to-earth Violet, who alone also gets to report on the climactic judgement.
Rattigan filters the political juggernaut through a drawing room that gradually seems stripped down, as the impact of engaging Morton and his fees become painfully apparent. Just as clearly though freedoms from respectability emerge: Grace Winslow puts on a brazen cockney accent pretending to be Violet hurling phrases at the reporters clustered outside. Sarah Lambie’s bustling emptiness as reporter Miss Barnes on the women’s angle earlier etches such a contrast to Catharine’s intelligence you wish she’d stride in and dismiss her and Oscar Morgan’s photographer Fred.
And it’s not just financial costs. William Belchambers makes a more than usually tongue-tied John Watherstone, Catharine’s less than wholly passionate suitor, more eloquent when away from the razor-sharp flaying of his finances by Gillett’s formidable Winslow.
It’s Catharine’s riposte to her beau that sets up the gulf between them, but also what separates herself and ultimately Morton from even Arthur Winslow. For Catharine it’s the abstract principle of justice that can be applied everywhere. Watherstone’s anxious about the case deflecting from potential preparations for war. Catharine’s retort is magnificently scornful of dreadnoughts. ‘If ever the time comes that the House of Commons has so much on its mind that it can’t find time to discuss a Ronnie Winslow and his bally postal order, this country will be a far poorer place.’ Myer-Bennett delivers this in a quivering yet regal intensity that leaves her suitor and audience in no doubt as to the outcome of their engagement.
One of the most telling scenes is where Watherstone arrives after his colonel father has delivered an impertinent ultimatum to Winslow. Morton is there and Catherine has bid her father read the letter aloud. So when Winslow tells Catharine it’s her decision to carry on, both Morton and Watherstone know what her answer will cost. You sense here Morton’s moved by this and is surely influenced by it in a decision of his own. Both he and Catharine learn of the private sacrifices each makes – though only Catharine knows what Morton’s is.
And though old friend and once-great cricketer the solicitor Desmond Curry (Geff Francis) gallantly offers Catharine a life away from the looming drudgery of being on the shelf at thirty and working for two pounds a week in her Suffragist cause (the law-abiding, not window-breaking branch as she makes clear), you register Catharine’s own awakening.
Much as we’d like to lob a brick, Rattigan carefully balances Catharine’s fiercely legal cast of mind against Sir Robert’s own. Much of their equally fierce attraction lies in her fighting his prejudice on his legal terms, taking the war to him. Both work for permanent, seismic settlements. Finally the famous KC pays tribute to Catharine as a legal advocate. Against every prejudice, he welcomes her as a potential equal. And only in him has she met hers.
Myer-Bennett impressed in the Orange Tree revival of Marivaux’ Lottery of Love last year with her mix of classical elegance and ardent expressiveness. She’s also a seasoned Shavian (The Philanderer, also Orange Tree). Here she expands her range. Her Catharine’s a more explosive, far more tearfully demonstrative Catharine than any I recall, as well as being able to throw back humour and a steely resolve after visibly taking a little time to recover.
Watson’s Morton – himself visibly moved by her – plays the icy side as well as any, but here there’s an emotional fissure you believe in, a weariness and sudden emotionalism he shows very rarely, shuddering over the difference between ‘justice’ and ‘right’, so much harder to bring about. Watson brings it out with palpable conviction. Catharine’s apology this time has them soon sitting next to each other. The chemistry’s fizzing right up to Catharine’s final challenge. They’re diametrically opposed, and yet… surely Rattigan would have loved this. The great question, of how do you cap the close of Act Two is here answered.
Of the real players, it’s known that the Winslow boy (George Archer-Shee) was killed as early as October 1914. Yet it was the real lawyer, Sir Edward Carson (Unionist architect and prosecutor of Wilde) who got him his commission in the army in 1913. Had he returned to the navy, he’d probably have survived. Clearly they made no attempt to welcome him back. And that apparently fictional romance? Carson a widower at sixty in 1914 married an admiring twenty-nine year old who had seen what Carson had done for the Winslow Boy. She was paradoxically the daughter of a colonel.
It’s a uniformly excellent cast. For Peake-Jones and particularly Gillett, Watson and above all Myer-Bennett, this is a treasurable revival of a now classic play, whose themes are every week recalled in political injustices visited by government on defenceless people. ‘Let right be done’ is as sadly relevant as ever.