Theatre review - The Winslow Boy, The Lowry

Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Catherine Winslow, The Winslow Boy

Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Catherine Winslow, The Winslow Boy - Credit: Archant

An intriguing plot, righteous passion and a light touch of humour, The Winslow Boy is an engrossing recount of a true story that bewitched a nation.

Aden Gillett - Arthur Winslow - The Winslow Boy 2018

Aden Gillett - Arthur Winslow - The Winslow Boy 2018 - Credit: Archant

The Winslow Boy is based on a true story, one that gripped the nation when it all happened in the years before WW1 and still retained its draw in the years following WW2, when playwright Terence Rattigan took the tale and brought it to the stage in 1946.

To summarise, in 1908 14 year old Naval cadet George Arthur-Shee was accused of stealing a five shilling postal order from a classmate’s locker. He pleaded his innocence, yet the investigation undertaken by the Naval college, Osborne House, suggested otherwise and he was expelled. George’s father Martin, upon receipt of a letter detailing the charge and the punishment, refused to accept his son’s guilt and started upon what was to be a two-year battle with the authorities to grant his son a fair hearing – his moment in court, as it were.

Misha Butler as Ronnie Winlsow, Aden Gillett as Arthur Winslow and Timothy Watson as Sir Robert Mort

Misha Butler as Ronnie Winlsow, Aden Gillett as Arthur Winslow and Timothy Watson as Sir Robert Morton, The Winslow Boy - Credit: Archant

Last night’s performance was thoroughly enjoyable. It’s a timeless tale, to be fair, of a father’s fight for his son’s right to defend his reputation. What’s made clear, again and again, is that really the theft was such a tiny thing, nobody need really have cared. From Ronnie Winslow’s older brother’s laugh that ‘everybody pinches!’ when he first hears Ronnie’s tale of woe, to Ronnie’s sister Kate’s confession that she has no absolute faith in his innocence, to his mother’s tearful rant about how he could simply have been sent to a new school and his name would never have been infamous, it’s clear that the theft of five shillings is really not the issue – it’s the principal of the thing.

This is where we really see the strength of the writing and the actors. When the whole pivot of a story is so small, so unimportant, the story only becomes watchable when we are made to care about something else. And we are, and we do.

We care about a family brought to the brink of ruin on a matter of principal. We care about a young woman whose future is made precarious and who has her own fight ahead as a Suffragette. We care about an undergraduate who finds his life re-written and a mother who sees her family pulled down. We care about a boy dismissed from a career he craved and a parlour maid at risk of losing her place. And at the end, we care about the battle that looms ahead, in the trenches of Belgium and France.

The driving forces in this play are family patriarch Arthur Winslow, played by Aden Gillett and his daughter Catherine, played with feisty verve by Dorothea Myer-Bennett. Gillett takes a Victorian father and gives him subtlety and humour. His interactions with his Wooster-esque elder son are a balance of frustration and acceptance and his pride in his ‘activist’ daughter, who strides about smoking cigarettes and volunteers for the local Suffragist branch, is clear in every word he utters.

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Myer-Bennett might have been transported directly from Edwardian times. She plays Kate excellently well. Kate must marry, and marry well, in a society where old maids are scorned and have no rights at all, yet she scorns the society that enforces the situation in which she must make her way. She is forceful, yet feminine and is as strong in her comedy moments as in her political speeches. A gift of a role – but only to the right person.

Timothy Watson (the baddest man the Archers has ever given us, in his role as Rob Titchener) plays the barrister Sir Robert Morton, KC, brilliantly. He is supercilious, patronising, frighteningly cold yet burns with passion for the English law his character represents.

The Winslow Boy plays at The Lowry, Salford, until 14 April 2018.