The Winslow Boy, Old Vic, London – review

It is possible to be too faithful. Lindsay Posner’s revival of Terence Rattigan’s celebrated drama scrupulously identifies the atmosphere, manners and voices of a middle-class post-Edwardian family as they battle to clear the name of their younger son, expelled from naval cadet college for allegedly stealing a postal order. The Winslow family’s accents are not quite clipped, but certainly crisp, with no sign of more modern glottal stops or contractions.

Their behaviour is undemonstrative; it may take two years for right to be done (as the wording has it of the obscure legal instrument with which they sought to bring their case), but the toll taken on them is discreet, as is their ultimate triumph. The celebrated barrister and MP Sir Robert Morton (based on Sir Edward Carson in the real-life Archer-Shee case that inspired Rattigan) is not just emotionally detached but, in Peter Sullivan’s performance, often comically alienating. No aspect of the production is overwrought.

And the surprising result is to emasculate the play. Rattigan, writing almost four decades after the original case of 1908-1911 (and moving it slightly to take place on the eve of the first world war), remained sufficiently fired by it to champion an ordinary family’s struggle to assert their honour in the face of an uncaring and obstructive state apparatus. It is one of the playwright’s finest evocations of the kind of English decency which so preoccupied him.

Yet, for all their skill and all their diligence, Posner and his cast convey none of the urgency or cruciality of the issue, no sense of what is at stake or what is being exalted. It misfires so distinctly that, when young suffragette Catherine Winslow’s engagement fails under pressure from her fiancé’s conservative family to abandon the case, the most significant audience response on press night was laughter at that young man’s scarlet regimental dress uniform.

As Arthur Winslow, Henry Goodman gives one of the most organic performances I have seen from him, eschewing the over-deliberateness that is often one of his keynotes; yet this fine central portrayal animates neither its surroundings, nor ultimately the character himself. The safety curtain is painted with the text of the mid-Victorian statute setting out procedure in petitions of right; I am afraid the production seems as arid and antiquated as that slab of 19th-century legalese.

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