The Winslow Boy: The collision of public battles and private lives

The Winslow Boy starred Tessa Peake-Jones, left, who played Raquel in Only Fools and Horses

How far should you go to get justice?

That is the question that lies at the heart of this excellent production. Should it trump the desire for a quiet life, for privacy, even for love?

On 7 October 1908 a young naval cadet called George Archer-Shee was expelled from the Royal Naval College in Osborne House. He had been accused of stealing a five-shilling postal order and an internal inquiry found him guilty.

The case came to public attention when the boys father employs the renowned barrister, Sir Edward Carson, to take on the Admiralty in pursuit of justice for his son.

The case caught the eye of the established playwright Terence Rattigan and the result was The Winslow Boy. George Archer-Shee becomes Ronnie Winslow, and Sir Edward Carson becomes Sir Robert Morton but the essential elements of the case story are unchanged.

Scene from Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy

The play is a masterful examination of how public battles affect the private lives of those involved.

By staging the play entirely within the drawing room of the Winslow household, Rattigan is able to convey the profoundly personal repercussions of the public fight for justice – a fight we only ever hear about secondhand but whose presence is always felt.

In this production, these impressions are magnified by clever set-design which has the looming columns of the law courts partially hidden behind the household scene.

Aden Gillett plays the linchpin role of the father, Arthur Winslow, delivering his lines with staccato wit.

It is an excellent performance, capturing a character torn between a genuine love for his family and a burning desire for justice.

Peake-Jones and Gillet in The Winslow Boy

In the 1960s many critics dismissed Rattigan as an outdated relic. The criticism now rings entirely hollow.

For what is most striking about the play is just how relevant many of the key themes remain.

Catherine Winslow, superbly played by Dorothea Myer-Bennett, is a radical voice surrounded by conservatives.

When she complains of large monopolies attacking Trade Unions and of a “Tory paper libelling a Labour Leader”, Edwardian Britain suddenly feels a lot less distant.

And when Timothy Watson’s ascerbic and imposing Sir Robert Morton tells her to give up on the lost cause of women’s suffrage one can’t help feeling a delicious sense of dramatic irony.

It is alleged that Rattigan liked to compare himself with Shakespeare and Checkov. On the evidence of this play he may have had a point.

Journal rating:

This performance does the play justice


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