"Facts are a brutal thing."
I foolishly feared The Winslow Boy might be a stale period drama, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover a spry and vibrant production of the classic Terrance Rattigan play. Thanks
to a fantastic cast and dynamic direction from Lindsay Posner, this
production brings the thrill of a courtroom drama without ever stepping
into a courtroom.
At age 13, Ronnie Winslow (Spencer Davis Milford) is expelled from Naval College for stealing
and forging a five shilling postal order. As someone in service to
the crown he is not entitled to have his day in court. He is his father's favorite and fears coming home to tell his father. But when his father (Roger Rees) learns of the ordeal he immediately takes up Ronnie's cause to get his name cleared. Ronnie's older brother Dickie (Zachary Booth) is more interested in learning the latest
Ragtime dance steps than focusing on his studies at Oxford and thinks
the entire affair with Ronnie is silly. But his suffragette sister Catherine joins her
father and his crusade despite her military fiancé's (Chandler Williams) concerns. The middle class family hires the most expensive and renown barrister, Sir Robert Morton (Alessandro Nivola) to
take their case and it consumes their lives as it becomes a bigger and bigger public event.
From Naval College to the House of Commons, the questions of this young boy's actions become politicized. To bring the action in court required the Crown in essence to consent to be sued since the acts of the Naval College were acts of the government. As England moves
toward war, and the prime minister at the time took a position of wait and see with foreign powers, this family symbolizes an aggressive and vocal effort to see right be done in the world--albeit on the most personal of levels. The triviality of battle of the five shilling note divides the nation at the time of the play.
It's easily dismissed by many as much ado about nothing. But isn't
that the easiest way to see our freedoms and liberties eroded. Tiny step by tiny step. Convictions are held steadfast as money drains away including Charlotte's dowry and Dickie's Oxford tuition. The sacrifices pile up. Perhaps as a nod toward the impending war this bloodless battle is fought through politics and law but
there are no question many casualties.
In a meditation on right, justice, honesty, faith, and perseverance, Rattigan's
1946 play becomes a fight for individual liberty. An interesting
topic today where the debate over individual liberty rages on--meaning to some a right to bear arms and to others a right to control one's
reproduction or marry whoever you want. The Winslow Boy might bear the marks of another time--from the William Morris wallpaper to the meager sum at issue in the theft--but somehow Posner and company makes this production feel like it is part of a vital and ongoing conversation today.
The cast is truly superb. Charlotte Parry and Roger Rees are a
dynamic duo as father and daughter. Rees throws his entire body into the role of Arthur
Winslow--showing the emotional and physical toll the case takes on him. Parry makes this role an interesting companion piece to her moving Eliza Dolittle in Pygmalion (She was also fantastic in Look Back in Anger). Catherine, like Eliza, is a woman whose life is controlled by the men around her but she still speaks her mind, finds a voice, and straddles this moment in history where she wants more for the future but doesn't know if what she dreams of will ever be realized. Parry brings intelligence and heart to the role. I'd recommend the play alone on her sensitive portrayal.
In supporting roles, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio plays Ronnie's mother, a woman of her era, baffled and bewildered by her
husband's decision but powerless to do anything except his bidding. Mastrantonio balances a certain scripted dippiness with warmth.
Michael Cumpsty is the family solicitor long in love with Catherine. Standing
like an awkward stalk of asparagus--lumpy and irregular--he can only
be who he is while suffering through the most awkward of congratulations to Catherine on her engagement. Alessandro Nivola makes a surprising turn as the imperious barrister who seems to be all about the spotlight but has hidden depth.
Despite a long running time, legal jargon, and some Edwardian arcana,
the play is riveting. I found myself drawn into the desperation of father and daughter as they pursued this endeavor together. Their need to see this through becomes the audience's desire as well. And despite
the sacrifices, sadness, losses, and defeats it is a worthwhile dramatic journey for all involved.