The emotional undercurrents of Rattigan’s plays swirl like swans’ legs beneath the clipped, clean surface of things. For all its exploration of the line between what is right and what is just, its bucking against the power of the Navy to dispense punishment as it sees fit, with no proper trial, his 1946 period piece, The Winslow Boy, is in many ways most potent as a portrait of a family in times of change.
Arthur Winslow, the Edwardian patriarch played with a silvery glint by Henry Goodman, is a superficially stern man, gruff, moustachioed and stiff of lip, but his underlying humanity is always evident. While he is willing to sacrifice both the family finances and even eventually his own health for the sake of seeing right done, he is never blind to the great cost of his actions; he comprehends all too clearly the toll his fight is taking and yet he cannot drop it, cannot let it fall. In amongst this, it his relationship with his outspoken, cigarette-smoking, suffragette daughter Catherine – and their understanding of each other’s drives and beliefs – which forms the subtle, heart-thump of the play.
The Winslow Boy is a courtroom drama in essence though it never strays beyond the drawing room of the Kensington home of the Winslows, with its William Morris wallpaper, its mahogany side-tables, nut-brown leather wingchairs and notably charming curtains. When the youngest Winslow, thirteen year old Robbie is sacked from Osborne Naval College for the theft of a five shilling postal order, his father decides to take the case to trial, employing one of the country’s most pre-eminent barristers in order to do so. Based on the case of a young man called Archer Shee who was expelled in similar circumstances in 1911, the fight becomes bigger than the family, a cause celebre, with journalists cluttering the front steps and the parlour maid volubly reporting back on the day’s legal proceedings. In the process, Robbie, is slowly erased from his own story, dozing on the sofa as vital discussions take place over his head.
The role of the lawyer Sir Robert Morton, so dapper in his evening clothes, Sahara-dry in temperament and casual in his brilliance, is a gift of a part for actors with a tendency towards scene-eating, but Peter Sullivan’s portrayal is more delicate and realistic in proportion; he doesn’t dominate the stage, doesn’t over-balance the see-saw. So when his courtroom persona does emerge, when he aggressively interrogates Charlie Rowe’s whimpering but adamant Robbie before dangling a way out in front of him like kipper to a kitten, it’s all the more powerful.
Naomi Frederick is similarly precise in her performance as the principled sister Catherine, who sees one fiancé ditch her as the family name is smeared across the daily papers, and is forced to fend off another kindly but unsuitable suitor, all the time knowing that her age and independent spirit make her chances of marriage increasingly unlikely. Deborah Findlay clearly relishes the moment when Mrs Winslow finally gets to crack, to shed her smile and blaze at her husband about the extent of the sacrifice the family has been obliged to make as a result of his unshakeable two-year pursuit of what he holds to be right. But though Henry Goodman’s Arthur gradually weakens physically, his resolve never leaves him; his eyes shine even as his hands shake.
Lindsay Posner’s production conforms to everything you’d expect a production of Rattigan at the Old Vic to be. It’s elegant, stately, the performers moving about the stage as if moving about a stage, not a domestic space, arraying themselves in tidy semi-circles and appealing tableaux, never bunching or crowding. This choreography is somehow all the more obvious here, because while Peter McKintosh’s drawing room set has been elongated to fill the stage, it intentionally neglects the vertical, leaving a large black void above, an odd mouth. As a production, it’s all very, very solid, and very decently done, but it’s strangely cool in places, a little too slick, this despite Rattigan’s inherent warmth and charm and heart.