Lindsay Posner’s production of ‘The Winslow Boy’ is London’s fifth major revival since 2010 of a play by the once desperately unhip Terence Rattigan. It’s probably now safe to say that after a half century in the wilderness, Rattigan – the biggest playwright of the ’40s – has been firmly restored to the English pantheon.
So the stakes here feel lower than with Thea Sharrock’s epochal 2010 revival of ‘After the Dance’ or Trevor Nunn’s populist 2011 smash ‘Flare Path’. And safe pair of hands Posner directs accordingly, contributing the kind of elegantly conservative production that would have been deemed desperately naff back when Rattigan’s popularity was at its lowest ebb. As such, things creak a little – but the exquisite writing wins out.
Based on the true story of a cadet who was expelled from Royal Naval college following an accusation of theft, the Edwardian-set ‘Winslow Boy’ is the tale of a little man – the cadet’s father, Arthur (Henry Goodman) – taking on the establishment that would dismiss his son’s right to trial. Post-Blair, Manning, Leveson etc, the contemporary resonances are numerous. But Posner’s starchy, period-precise direction makes no genuflection toward modernity. The posh diction, stiff formalism and static setting – it all takes place in the Winslow’s drawing room, with the court action only reported – takes some warming to.
But Posner trusts the play and he is right to do so. Goodman is this finely wrought, often funny play’s beating heart, a warm and vulnerable patriarch whose health and home suffer as a result of his determined quest to see justice done. It’s hard to see how accused son Ronnie (Charlie Rowe) would be even slightly afraid of this big softy’s temper, but Goodman is good enough that it doesn’t matter. And once Peter Sullivan’s monomaniacal and charismatic attorney Sir Robert Morton appears, things really liven up.
Above all, fidelity to the period allows the more Chekhovian nuances of Rattigan’s writing to hit their mark. This is a gripping drama about David standing up to Goliath. But it is also profoundly elegiac, every scene informed by the awful irony that the establishment Winslow is battling will nonetheless call upon his sons to die on the fields of Europe. Andrzej Lukowski