Review: Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy, Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham
- Credit: Archant
Get it right and you’ve a play that transcends decades; get it wrong and you’ve scrambled egg on your cap, says Katie Jarvis
The hill that rises in South Woodchester gives Winslow House an imposing view over the valley at its feet. This solid edifice, with its part-panelled dining room, Cotswold fireplaces and coffin floorboards, is as English as houses come: a pillar-entranced property for a pillar of the community.
Once upon a time, villagers may well have pointed and said, “That’s Martin Archer-Shee’s house. Banker, from London!”
But what they ended up saying – and still say to this day – was, “That’s the Winslow Boy’s house!”
The Winslow Boy. George Archer-Shee: the 13-year-old naval cadet who, in 1908, was expelled from the Royal Naval College of Osborne – a revered institution that took young lads and moulded them into naval officers – for stealing a five-shilling postal order.
When young George persistently and consistently protested his innocence, his father determined to clear his name. At any cost.
To himself; to the family.
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If you wander down that hill, you’ll come to a war memorial that commemorates young men from North and South Woodchester who fell in the service of their country. If you read those inscriptions, you’ll see the name of that same George Archer-Shee, killed in the first Battle of Ypres, autumn 1914.
“It makes it all a strange non-story, doesn’t it,” someone contemplated, out loud, to me. “He didn’t steal the postal order. And then he died, aged 19.”
Well, yes and no. For, yes: George hardly survived long enough to enjoy the restoration of his reputation – even members of the jury, as the trial exonerated the boy, leapt over the barriers to congratulate the family.
And no. The court-battles the case provoked represented far more than the guilt or innocence of a 13-year-old boy. These battles concerned despotism (on the part of the Admiralty); the protection of children (it was a full two weeks after the event that the college informed George’s parents their child had been accused of theft); the ability to prove personal honour and truth.
“Let right be done!” was the cry throughout the land.
And then there’s another point, sometimes overlooked. Despite the pronouncement of the court; despite the stoic belief of the father; despite the protestations of the boy… we still don’t know to this day whether or not George Archer-Shee stole a five-shilling postal order on October 7, 1908.
Terence Rattigan’s acclaimed 1946 play The Winslow Boy – a fictionalised account of the trials of the Archer-Shee family – begins with a frightened child. Outside, the rain is teeming with pathetic fallacy; inside, the Edwardian drawing room of fussy pictures and heavy turquoise paint adds an equal air of oppressiveness. Certainly, Ronnie Winslow (18-year-old Misha Butler, in this Everyman production), trembling and white-faced in the centre of the room, appears terrified of facing his as-yet-absent family.
Violet, the parlour maid (Soo Drouet), happens across him first.
“You took a taxi all by yourself!” she exclaims, clearly startled to see him. “Don’t I get a kiss or are you all grown up now?”
And thus we learn, in Rattigan style, that a) Ronnie’s arrival was not expected; and b) this is a family of progressives, where the maid is practically one of the family.
When the Winslows return from church – by now, Ronnie is hiding in the rain-drenched garden – we meet indulgent parents Arthur (Aden Gillett) and Grace (Tessa Peake-Jones), who somewhat mildly and teasingly berate their elder son Dickie (Theo Bamber) whose interests lie more in perfecting the new Bunny Hug Dance than embracing his Oxford studies (costing his father some £200 a year).
And there’s Kate (an excellent Dorothea Myer-Bennett), an emancipated suffragist, about to become engaged to John Watherstone (William Belchambers).
The engagement celebrations, however, are curtailed by Ronnie – soaked and shivering – who emerges with a reluctant letter for his father, detailing his expulsion and disgrace.
And here we are, suddenly, on a quest for justice; a long legal series of fights that take on King and Country in a bid to clear Ronnie’s name. (This might be a fictionalised account but, at times, it skirts the truth with barely a hair’s breadth between them.)
The story – it is true – is a captivating one. And I’ve no quibble with the acting in this production, directed by Rachel Kavanaugh. Particularly that of Timothy Watson, who plays the family’s barrister, Sir Robert Morton, with a compelling combination of gravitas and a hint of vulnerability. In fact, the scene-stealer of the play is his initial examination of Ronnie, during which he determines to his own satisfaction – and the audience’s surprise - the boy’s innocence.
But my problems are these.
It can’t be easy to convey to any 21st century audience the real impact these events had in their day. The Edwardian House of Commons, mired in encroaching troubles in the Balkans, actually suspended its bellicose business to discuss the case of a 13-year-old boy accused of stealing a five-shilling postal order!
Transport that to today and imagine the Commons brushing aside Syria or Skripal to debate some 2018 teenager who might or might not have nicked a tenner.
So if you don’t update the story – which would be difficult – then it’s the overwhelming emotions that must speak to a modern audience. The suffering father. The quest for justice. The turmoil of a close-knit family protecting one of its own.
My difficulty with this production – and I could be out on a limb here – is that it lacked that emotion. Rattigan’s wit humanises the characters; but it’s their turmoil that’s the main event. There were times – for me – when this production didn’t seem to know if it was a comedy or a tragedy. Which confusion left you wondering why on earth this man, Arthur, put so much on the line – his wife’s peace of mind; his daughter’s engagement; his elder son’s education; his own health; his family’s entire reputation. Only fierce, overwhelming, focused emotion could justify such an obsession.
Still, it’s a cracking story – don’t get me wrong. And maybe I was out on a limb; everyone around me seemed to love it; there was even an encore. The only complaint the couple next to me voiced concerned the depiction of Ronnie, the navy cadet, on the front of the programme:
“He wouldn’t have had scrambled egg on his cap,” they said, knowingly, pointing to the braiding on his headgear. “Would have been a plain cap.”
Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy will run at Cheltenham’s Everyman Theatre from Monday April 16 to Saturday April 21.
Click here to book tickets.