ronnie and sir robert

Misha Butler as Ronnie Winslow, Aden Gillet as Arthur Winslow and Timothy Watson as Sir Robert Morton. Pictures: Alastair Muir

The Winslow Boy

Birmingham Rep


Terence Rattigan was one of the giants among twentieth century dramatists and with this wonderful production it is easy to see why.

Rattigan’s writing and plotting are superb with so many threads intertwined as a dogmatic father defends his son’s honour, no matter what the cost to the family.

On the face of it the plot is far-fetched. A 13-year-old boy is expelled from an Isle of Wight naval college for supposedly stealing and cashing a five-shilling postal order.

His father sets out to clear his name engaging the finest barrister in the land with debates in the commons and a high court action against the Admiralty. All that for five bob? Never.

Except that is exactly what happened in 1908, when George Archer-Shee was expelled and his father, Martin, took up his case, finally vindicating his son in the High Court in 1910. George, incidentally, commissioned as a Lieutenant in the South Staffordshire Regiment, was to die, aged 19, in the first battle of Ypres at the start of the First World War.

Rattigan took the facts of this Edwardian cause célèbre and then wove them around his own characters and narrative to create a drama which at times is tense, at times funny but always gripping, carrying you along though its highs and lows.

We are never sure if expelled Ronnie, the Winslow boy, is going to be acquitted of not, or even if he is innocent or guilty. Misha Butler gives him an air of teenage innocence with almost tearful indigation at the accusations. From his first appearance we can see a bond between father and son, at first it appears to be driven by fear, but soon we realise that Ronnie feels a sort of disgrace, a despair at having let his father down - and we realise his father will stand by him, no matter what.

Catherine and Grace

Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Catherine Winslow and Tessa Peake-Jones as Grace Winslow

Brother Dickie, played by Theo Bamber, has no such qualms or hints of disgrace or despair, having failed his first year exams at Oxford where he is happily living a somewhat hedonistic student lifestyle in which academic work is always something to do tomorrow.

Sister Catherine, meanwhile, is somewhat more serious. A radical and a suffragette, with left wing views, she is a real firebrand and modern woman – at least in Edwardian England.

Keeping the peace is Tessa Peake-Jones as Grace Winslow, the mother, who, like a mother hen, protects her children from the world, and her husband Arthur in particular.

Aden Gillett’s Arthur is gout and arthritis ridden, which perhaps makes him a bit grumpy at times, but he has a lovely collection of quips, one liners and asides as he rules over his family with a sort of stern bon homie. There is no rod of iron to be seen and it is obvious he will do anything for his wife and children, while the family obey his wishes, as was the social order of the age, with the only real dissention coming from from Grace when his obsession with clearing his son’s name is leaving the family penniless and is affecting them all.

Around them we have Geff Francis as the family solicitor, and ex-England bowler Desmond Curry, who is in love with Catherine, a love that is doomed to remain unrequited, and not helped, one must admit, by the fact Catherine becomes engaged to John Watherstone, played somewhat formally by William Belchambers.

John, we find, is a bit shallow as romantic heroes go, and he seems rather more interested in money and his good name than justice and what is right – which is not going to go down well with the idealistic Catherine who will always take up the fight of the little man against the state.

Fussing around them all is Violet, parlour maid of some twenty odd years, played by Soo Drouet, who has never actually been properly trained – a situation, Mrs Winslow tells her husband, which means whenever they have guests: “We always have to explain her.”

Then there is Sir Robert Morton, leading barrister of his age, and, Catherine decides, a “cold fish” who takes on cases only for the benefit of himself. Timothy Watson’s Sir Robert is a lesson in understatement. He is never flamboyant, never anything but polite and non-committal – except when he questions Ronnie to gauge his guilt or innocence when we see the full range of his courtroom adversarial skills.

Arthur and Ronnie

Father and son. Aden Gillet as Arthur Winslow and Misha Butler as Ronnie Winslow pose self consciously for the Daily Mail photographer

Yet we always feel there is more to him than a clinical, forensic barrister with no emotion, and so it proves as Catherine, now jilted by John, realises she has been wrong about him from the start, and the “cold fish” is left awkwardly asking if he will see her again. Whether they meet again we will never know, but we do hope they do.

The play is full of lighter moments, whether the comfortable relationship and banter of husband and wife, amusing battles of father and wayward son, or the arrival of Daily Mail reporter Miss Barnes, played by Sarah Lambie, and her photographer Fred, Oscar Morgan.

There to interview Arthur and his son, she is much more interested in Grace’s curtains, which we suspect will be the main thrust of her story of The Winslow Boy.

The writing is quite magnificent, it has moments of high emotion, of gripping drama, set amid more mundane domestic affairs as we watch a family being stretched towards breaking point by their stand on principle. For a father it is clearing a son’s name, for a daughter, it is much more, giving the little man a voice, a fair trial, for a brother, a sacrifice he hardly wanted to make, while for Sir Robert, it is not about justice, it is about what is right.

Rattigan cleverly never leaves the Winslow drawing room in his four acts. Even the verdict is delivered off stage. It would have been easy to have a bewigged court scene with all the drama of dock and jury, but hardly needed. This is more about family than a legal drama, and the impact is in that drawing room, not the courts of justice.

Written in 1946 and set in the years before the First World War, the play has survived Rattigan’s fall from favour amid the rise of the Angry Young Men playwrights, and not only has it survived but it has perhaps stood the test of time better than the bleak world of the kitchen sink.

This is a masterclass in drama, beautifully written, plotted and acted and directed with a deft hand by Rachel Kavanaugh, a former artistic director at the Rep. It had nice touches, such as when pictures were removed between the final acts indicating the family liquidating assets, and always held the interest.

Michael Taylor’s set and costumes looked authentic although the use of a background of imposing stone columns behind the fabric walls was a little unclear, unless to indicate the state towering over the little man.

Fergus O’Hare’s sound is impressive with convincing rain through the French windows and music from a wind-up gramophone, while Tim Lutkin’s lighting did its job admirably in every scene.

The result is a theatrical treat from a master playwright. To 03-03-18

Roger Clarke


Index page Rep Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre