“Let right be done” is the “time-honoured phrase” at the heart of Terence Rattigan’s 1946 play The Winslow Boy, in which a 14-year-old Royal Naval College cadet, Ronnie Winslow, accused of the theft of a five-shilling postal order, finds himself at the centre of a legal battle spearheaded by his father, Arthur, who’s determined to clear his son’s name. Lindsay Posner’s new production, currently in previews at the Old Vic, certainly “does right” by Rattigan’s great play, elegantly revealing its sorrows, its humour and its hopes. Posner recently screwed up The Turn of the Screw at the Almeida, but he’s on form this time around, delivering a beautiful, deeply felt production that’s entirely absorbing and perfectly judged. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine seeing the play served better than it is here.
Rattigan’s writing formed an important part of British cultural life in 2011 – the playwright’s centenary year which saw London productions of Flare Path and Cause Célèbre, revivals of queerish minor gems such as While the Sun Shines and a great Chichester season dedicated to his work (reviews here, here and here), plus Terence Davies’s not-so-great film of The Deep Blue Sea, of course. Like the best of those productions, The Winslow Boy again reveals Rattigan’s strengths as a dramatist: watertight structure, elegant dialogue, perceptive characterisation, humanity of vision. Unlike The Deep Blue Sea and (to a lesser extent) The Browning Version, though, The Winslow Boy doesn’t have sex at its centre (or on its sidelines, either) and so can seem a tamer proposition than those later plays by comparison. A courtroom drama that (praise be) never shows us the inside of a courtroom, it feels like the sort of work that should have dated, with its characters’ earnest musings on justice, innocence and individual liberty.
And yet, without resorting to anything remotely tricksy (his production is "traditional" in the best sense of the word), Posner makes the piece feel fresh and reveals it to be both funny and quirky. Not only do individual lines surprise you with their relevance, but what’s also striking is the way in which the play keeps calling its own dramatic premise into question. Again and again, characters comment on the wisdom of Arthur’s obsession and ponder whether proving Ronnie’s innocence really matters so very much, especially since the boy (endearingly played by Charlie Rowe here) is soon happily ensconced in a new school and seems oddly indifferent to the outcome of the trial himself.
The point of the play is to show us that it does matter, of course. But the tensions that are raised make the drama much more complex, scene by scene, than the quest-for-justice plot suggests. Rattigan lets our sympathies shift throughout, as doubts, anxieties and convictions move from character to character. Ronnie’s pleasure-loving brother Dickie (Nick Hendrix) feels that “pinching’s nothing” and wonders if the fuss made by their father isn’t “much ado about damn all.” Mother, Grace (Deborah Findlay), also poignantly questions the motives of Arthur (Henry Goodman) for continuing the case as the family come under increasing financial and emotional strain. Their feminist daughter, Catherine (Naomi Frederick), shares her father’s conviction about the trial’s importance (though not for precisely the same reasons). But she, like the rest of the family, ends up making a considerable sacrifice for it. This being Rattiganland any such privations are borne “with fortitude,” natch.
The play’s showiest role is that of Sir Robert Morton, the lawyer hired by Arthur to make the family’s case against the Admiralty, and who’s misjudged as “a hard, cold-blooded, supercilious fish” by Catherine. Jeremy Northam’s take on the part in David Mamet’s fine film of the play casts a long shadow but Peter Sullivan invests the character with an engaging wry authority here. Still what counts the most in Posner’s production is the family context, and the actors succeed in fleshing out an entirely convincing dynamic. Proper yet mildly eccentric, loving but seldom friction-free, you believe in them completely as a family unit. Henry Goodman is gripping as the driven patriarch, whose own health suffers for his single-mindedness in pursuing the case. At first it seems that Deborah Findlay is resorting to the mannered mode she employed in the NT’s Timon of Athens last year - voice sliding down at the end of lines; hands stabbing out in gestures - but the performance takes hold gradually, as the actress shows maternal warmth and frustration at Arthur’s obsession finally settling into an amused, what-the-hell exuberance and resolve to enjoy the courtroom spectacle.
Charismatic Nick Hendrix – channelling a similar kind of easy-going charm to that which he displayed a couple of years ago in ETT’s wonderful Eden End – makes Dickie Winslow puppyishly loveable; when, near the end, this genial fellow talks cheerfully about the prospect of going to war (the rumble of which is felt throughout Rattigan’s play, which covers 1912 to 1914) it’s a truly chilling moment. (On a personal note, I quibble with Dickie on just one point: you can indeed “keep late hours in Reading.”)
The expert Naomi Frederick brings exactly the right kind of candour and directness to Catherine, and Jay Villiers does a gem of a supporting turn as the lawyer who loves her, blushing with pride when recognised for his cricketing prowess, but never made a mere figure of fun. Posner’s production, classily designed by Peter McKintosh and lovingly lit by Tim Mitchell, ensures that every encounter between these characters carries its precise emotional weight and the near-3 hour running time zips by. In sum: an exquisite evening that’s not to be missed.
The production is booking until 25 May. Further information at the Old Vic website.