The superb, electrifying confrontation that ends the first act of the Roundabout Theatre’s revival of The Winslow Boy will jolt awake those who, perhaps, have been lightly dozing through the previous doings: conversations about cricket, the morning’s church sermon, the unsuitability of a gramophone in the living room, the announcement of a betrothal and that new dance craze, the bunny hug. (The play is set a few years before World War I.)
In that climactic scene, a chilly, arrogant barrister relentlessly grills a terrified 13-year-old doings – the titular Winslow boy doings – to determine, trail by fury style, whether he wants to represent him in the suit at the center of Terence Rattigan’s 1946 masterwork.
No story about the British-born playwright, no review of his oeuvre (which includes The Browning Version, The Deep Blue Sea and Separate Tables) has ever failed to trot out the phrase “well made play.” This isn’t always, or even often, meant as a compliment, but rather as a way to describe Rattigan’s clever if drawn out drawing-room dramas.
Those dramas made the future Sir Terence the toast of London’s West End from the mid-30s to the mid-50s. But with the noisy arrival of John Osborne’s angry young men, tidy plays about upper-class concerns were suddenly old hat. Rattigan became an irrelevancy at home, a non-entity abroad.
But his 2011 centenary (it spilled into 2012 and 2013) was the occasion for many eloquent Rattigan reconsiderations and many revivals, among them The Winslow Boy at London’s Old Vic. With the same director (Lindsay Posner) and a different cast, that production is being restaged to generally very good effect by the Roundabout Theatre Company.
The play, set in the years before World War I, is based on the true story of an adolescent cadet who was expelled from naval college for allegedly pilfering a five-shilling postal order, and the protracted and costly battle waged by his father to clear the boy’s name.
Should government prerogative trump the rights of the individual? What’s worth sacrificing for a principle? Your health? Your financial stability? Your family’s happiness? What’s the difference between doing what is right and doing what is just? These are the issues that animate The Winslow Boy. It’s a measure of Rattigan’s skill that the legal fight to address some of those issues takes place off stage. When it comes to drama, sometimes the courtroom is no match for the drawing room.
Roger Rees is terrific as the quietly forceful Arthur Winslow, a father who may or may not know best, but is willing to put everything on the line for what he believes. But I was particularly taken with Charlotte Parry as Arthur’s suffragette daughter, and even more with Alessandro Nivola as supercilious barrister Sir Robert Morton – despite his low regard for the fourth estate. “Whatever you say,” he notes at one point, "will have little bearing on what they write.”