The Theatreguide.London Review
Old Vic Theatre Spring 2013
Terrence Rattigan's career-long subject was the British 'stiff upper lip' mentality and morality, most often viewed – in such plays as The Browning Version and The Deep Blue Sea – as both admirable and a tragic flaw, since a lifetime's training in repressed emotions left people ill equipped to deal with real feelings when they struck.
In The Winslow Boy, however, he is almost unreservedly admiring of the quiet heroism that lies in the national trait of commitment to family, justice and what is right.
When a schoolboy is expelled for a petty theft he swears he did not commit, his father begins a years-long campaign for his exoneration that reaches the highest levels of government while taking a debilitating toll on the family's finances, cohesion and health.
And while Rattigan allows some family members to waver or to question the purity of their motives in this sometimes quixotic obsession, he is never seriously in doubt about the rightness of their cause and the courage of their quiet dedication.
All this is captured in Lindsay Posner's current revival of the 1946 drama, though with some surprising losses in dramatic intensity and a counterbalancing discovery of a warm humour previous productions have failed to find in the text.
A central theme of the play is the cost this family is prepared to pay for justice, but Posner's direction makes the decimation of the family's finances, the breakup of a romance, the decline in someone's health, the frustration of repeated setbacks and the painful wavering of dedication all seem no more than minor distractions with little real effect on everyone's spirits and commitment.
And what should be electrifyingly dramatic set pieces, like a barrister's harsh questioning of the boy or the romantic breakup, lack the desired energy just because we're not fully convinced these are life-or-death moments for the characters.
In the place of that dramatic intensity Posner discovers a warmer play than others have, and a sense of humour some might have suspected Rattigan lacked. The opening scenes, introducing this mildly eccentric family before the false accusation is discovered, play more like social comedy – like, say, the opening scene of Shaw's Major Barbara – than the beginning of a serious drama.
And even when things turn darker, play and production retain a mildly amused view of the characters that retains our sympathy for them throughout. (Of course, this slightly ironic distance also contributes to the weakening of our sense of the very high cost of the adventure to the family.)
Henry Goodman, as skilled a comedian as a dramatic actor, makes us see the father prepared to commit everything to the cause of vindicating his son as both the admirable essence of British virtue and a bit of a ridiculous Don Quixote, and it is much to the actor's credit that the two views enhance each other rather than cancelling each other out.
Deborah Findlay, as the wife and mother whose love of her family ironically makes her the first to waver, comes closest in the cast to conveying the price that is being paid by everyone. But the woman is also a bit of a ditz, and Findlay lets us laugh at her folly without missing her pain.
The two strongest characters in the play are the suffragette daughter/sister and the distinguished barrister who takes on the case, the first never wavering in her commitment though her agenda is a little more broadly political than her father's, the second beginning as merely professional and then increasingly emotionally involved in the cause.
Naomi Frederick and Peter Sullivan give attractive performances, nicely capturing the way these two strong figures circle around each other warily, but a directorial decision to reject any hint of a sexual energy between them leaves both characterisations feeling incomplete.
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