There is no sacrifice I am not prepared to make.
Terence Rattigan based The Winslow Boy (1946) on the real-life case of a fourteen-year-old suspended from naval college in 1911, accused of having stolen a five pound postal order. The father fought for two years to clear his son’s name, only for the boy to later die in the trenches during the First World War. Contemporary audiences would doubtless have found The Winslow Boy particularly poignant, yet, in its portrayal of family relationships, exploration of the difference between right and justice, and concern with the proceedings of Parliament and the savage power of the press, Rattigan’s play emphatically stands the test of time.
The Winslow Boy demonstrates Rattigan’s gift for construction: the play is a legal drama yet it takes place entirely in the Winslow family’s Kensington drawing room. Peter McKintosh’s set, with it’s thick curtains, heavy upholstery and candlestick telephone, immediately signals both the pre-war era and the Winslows’ position in society. Fergus O’Hare’s clever use of sound reminds us that there is a world outside this room – particularly when we hear the cries of the press camped outside the Winslow’s front door – though Rattigan’s inward, almost claustrophobic focus enables him to examine the effect a father’s pursuit of justice has on his family.
The strong cast, led by Henry Goodman as patriarch Arthur, succeeds in creating a genuinely convincing family dynamic. Goodman captures Arthur’s innate cynicism and irascibility, but also movingly portrays the physical results of his stubbornness and dogged pursuit of justice; he seems to shrink and fade as the play progresses, eaten up by his cause and eventually confined to a wheelchair. The moment where he finally realises the cost of his actions (‘I have made many sacrifices, some of which were not mine to make’) is devastating.
Deborah Findlay excels as Grace, Arthur’s slightly vague, vapid wife. She manages to make Grace believable as the warm and nurturing mother who realises that her youngest child will ‘always be known as “the Winslow Boy”‘ regardless either of his guilt or the outcome of the case, and yet when a female reporter comes calling she immediately seizes the opportunity to discuss the latest fashions in wallpaper and curtains, displaying impeccable comic timing.
Of the three offspring, Nick Hendrix’s performance as Dickie stands out. Dickie combats his position as much-overlooked middle child by putting a brave face on things and eagerly acquiescing to his father’s wishes, even if that means he must give up his place at Oxford; Hendrix poignantly hints at Dickie’s inner turmoil and desire to be recognised and loved by his father in the same way as younger brother Ronnie, and yet also portrays his attention-seeking behaviour with just the right amount of energy and bitterness. Charlie Rowe is too earnest and exaggerated in his portrayal of carefree teenage indifference as Ronnie, but Naomi Frederick lends a savage intelligence to suffragette Catherine, concerned only with safeguarding the rights of the individual – that it is her younger brother who has been falsely accused does not inform her opinions, even though it costs her her fiancé.
As the case drags on over two years, Rattigan cleverly includes many different perceptions of the Winslow case, from debates in Parliament to readers writing letters which are then published in various papers. Dickie declares that it’s ‘much ado about damned all’, maid Violet describes it as ‘a fine old rumpus’ and Catherine finally resigns herself to the fact that, despite her own best efforts, and thousands of pounds of her father’s money, it has become a ‘hopeless case’. This leads us to ask ourselves what position we would take in the war between the individual and the establishment, where we stand on the issue of truth vs. justice, and whether there some cases where the price paid in obtaining that justice really is too high.
The Winslow Boy is a moving, intelligent play. It is also incredibly funny. However, at times the comic aspects are in danger of threatening the play’s weightier themes, and Lindsay Posner veers dangerously towards turning this into a comedy of manners. Yet the bold, dramatic structure and Rattigan’s powerful examination of family dynamics, personal motivations and the often unbridgeable gap between truth, right and justice makes this a truly human drama.