THE WINSLOW BOY
The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 22nd January, 2018
Terence Rattigan’s masterpiece loses none of its powers in this new production directed by Rachel Kavanaugh. What begins as a charming observation of Edwardian family life soon develops into a drama with far-reaching implications, as the entire nation follows the case of Ronnie Winslow and his struggle to clear his name following a wrongful accusation of the theft of a five-bob postal order. Or rather, it’s his father’s struggle: only 14 when it all kicks off, Ronnie is able to get on with his life, secure in his father’s love and support.
As the titular Boy, Misha Butler is an instantly appealing presence, fresh-faced and oozing vulnerability. As his father, Aden Gillett is old-school paternal: his word is law, but he’s also clearly very much a man who loves his family. We witness Pa Winslow’s physical decline, his resolve wobble as much as his gammy leg, but his belief in his boy never falters, despite the hardship the expenses of pursuing the case inflict on the family. It’s a masterful performance at the heart of this piece. Tessa Peake-Jones as Ma Winslow is old-school maternal, responding emotionally rather than rationally: it’s a family to which we’d like to belong – especially with chirpy maid Violet (Soo Drouet) fetching and carrying. Drouet manages to bring more to this rather stock character.
Theo Bamber’s Dickie, the elder son, is a livewire, a voice of dissent and a nifty dancer! But it is the sister, Catherine (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) who draws most of our attention. A suffragiste, she is her father’s daughter, forthright and not shy of voicing her opinions, even willing to make sacrifices in her love-life for the cause of clearing Ronnie… Her intended is no great loss anyway; stuffed shirt John (a dapper William Belchambers) lacks the independence of spirit that makes Catherine stand out so markedly.
There is a magnificent turn from Timothy Watson as the superstar barrister hired to fight the case, Sir Robert Morton. His cross-examination of Ronnie makes for an electrifying scene and his scenes with Catherine are delicious, as they skirt around a whiff of romance.
Kavanaugh directs with a light touch and the cast rattle through Rattigan’s somewhat wordy dialogue at speed, so the witty remarks and emotional exchanges fizz and spark. It’s an unerringly entertaining piece. The Winslows taking on the establishment is a David v Goliath campaign but the far-reaching implications I mentioned earlier have remarkable resonance with us today, a hundred years after the time in which the play is set. Lines about the ‘desperatism of Whitehall’ encroaching on our freedoms could refer to the woeful Brexit negotiations, for example, and with ‘the despotism of bureaucracy’, Rattigan could be describing the Department of Work and Pensions! And the figure of Catherine could represent the Time’s Up movement as women continue to fight for equality and respect.
More than a comedy (although it is very funny), this is social commentary that hooks us in with likeable characters, an intriguing situation, and bags of tension and suspense. A flawless production and a real treat.
Aden Gillett looks on as Misha Butler is grilled by Timothy Watson
2 Comments | tags: Aden Gillett, Dorothea Myer-Bennett, Misha Butler, Rachel Kavanaugh, review, Soo Drouet, Terence Rattigan, Tessa Peake-Jones, The REP Birmingham, The Winslow Boy, Theo Bamber, Timothy Watson, William Belchambers | posted in Theatre Review
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 4th November, 2015
The Original Theatre Company is back on the road, following up their excellent Three Men in a Boat and the superlative Birdsong with this new production of Terence Rattigan’s 1942 play. As ever, production values are high and while this one isn’t as funny as the former or as emotionally powerful as the latter, it flies high on its own merits.
Set in a Lincolnshire hotel it charts the comings and goings of several couples, the male partners of which are in the RAF and are called out on a mission. Waiting for news of their fate adds to the tension in their relationships. It’s a bit ‘terribly, terribly, darling’ being very much of its time but what makes it extra interesting is that neither the characters nor the playwright know when or how the war will be over. We, the audience, know the outcome (spoiler: we won) – the play must have felt very current when it was first produced. And it’s a bit of a morale booster: personal sacrifice for the greater good, kind of thing.
Hayley Grindle’s set combines period stylings with the genius idea of taking away the walls of the hotel. There is a window, upstage and central, surrounded by a vast expanse of sky – the sky is of the utmost importance to the characters, being airmen and airmen’s wives.
Out of the blue comes matinee idol Peter Kyle (Leon Ockenden being suitably charming and debonair) and it turns out he’s as old flame one of the wives, actress Patricia (Olivia Hallinan bringing 1940s glamour); he’s flaring up again and she is forced to choose between her passion for Peter and her duty to heroic husband Teddy (Alastair Whatley in superb form). It’s a choice between a man who plays heroes and one who actually is one. And yet it is Teddy who is in awe of Peter – but then we often set movie stars on pedestals and undervalue our servicemen. Whatley is awfully good, especially when Teddy’s stiff upper lip gives way after a traumatic flight back to base.
But then the entire cast is high calibre. Affable and endearing Philip Franks is affable and endearing as avuncular Squadron Leader Swanson. Simon Darwen and Shvorne Marks are the Millers from London – both capture the essence of period Cockney without descending into caricature, and there is some excellent character work from Stephanie Jacob as irascible hotel manager Mrs Oakes. Adam Best amuses as Polish Officer Skriczevinsky, nagged by his wife to improve his English – there are touching moments when it looks like he won’t be coming back, powerfully handled by Siobhan O’Kelly reacting to a letter read by Leon Ockenden. I also enjoyed James Cooney as chirpy barman Percy who always seems to know more than the airmen.
We never see a plane but we hear them all right courtesy of Dominic Bilkey’s sound design bringing them close: there is a sense of menace to think that might be a German bomber overhead (especially since I’m sitting in Coventry!). Director Justin Audibert gets the tone spot on, evoking period and place while still keeping the characters relatable rather than pastiching them beyond our ability to sympathise.
The whole thing smacks of British understatement and emotion kept reined in by humour and making the best of it. Rattigan’s writing is still accessible – the play has hardly dated despite its specificity – and this production satisfies on all levels. Another winner from The Original Theatre Company, dripping in quality and entertainment value and carried off with flair..
Alistair Whatley and Olivia Hallinan (Photo: Jack Ladenburg)
Leave a comment | tags: Adam Best, Alistair Whatley, Belgrade Theatre Coventry, Dominic Bilkey, Flare Path, Hayley Grindle, James Cooney, Justin Audibert, Leon Ockenden, Olivia Hallivan, Philip Franks, review, Shvorne Marks, Simon Darwen, Siobhan O'Kelly, Stephanie Jacob, Terence Rattigan | posted in Theatre Review