The Winslow Boy | Theatre Review
Grand Opera House, Belfast • 01 May ’18
By Conor O’Neill
Nine hundred and a baker’s dozen crowd the Grand Opera House tonight, and a rather dapper and demur crowd it is too; just what ‘one’ would expect for a Terence Rattigan play. Call me a ‘cad’ a ‘scoundrel’ a ‘bounder’ and even a ‘Philistine’ if you please, for I had never even heard of the man until after the show and read the program.
Based on a true story, The Winslow Boy is a tale of ups and downs. Both emotions are only to be felt in the extreme and the set and costume changes reflect these variations in colour. To begin with the eye is met with an explosion of jade wallpaper running high to a corniced ceiling, pictures and portraits adorn almost every inch available, a beautiful blonde chez lounge sits centre stage, a gramophone, large sofa to our right and just as every well-to-do house in fashionable Georgian house at the start of the 20th century requires, electric lamps throw copious amounts of light onto the proceedings.
Britain is still great, ideals are not to be tested and as our modern day Prince Charles once wished aloud, the classes know their place…
Here we meet Ronnie Winslow, aged 13 years and 10 months. Ten days out of the noble Royal Naval College in Osborne House. The reason for his departure: the theft of a five-shilling postal order. Such shame will surely overwhelm the respectable Winslow (a crafty play on words) family name. Misha Butler plays the young Ronnie, and as the scandal evolves and the upcoming trial begins, we see him move from stiff, upper-lipped young gentleman to the boy he really is. Indeed almost every character, bar maybe three, has at times a magnificent or tragic change in role and fortune.
The matriarch of the tribe in the splendid Arthur Winslow: a perfect example of Georgian male dominance and supreme authority. Aden Gillet’s portrayal of Arthur is, like his character, beyond repute. He commands obedience and his machine gun-like one-liners or dismissive soliloquies are only matched by bloody determination and sacrifice, even if it is to the family’s detriment. Of course, behind every great man is a strong woman. That role is filled by his adoring wife Grace. Played by Tessa Peake-Jones, of Only Fools and Horses’ fame plays Grace with, ahem, grace. The difference in Rachel and Mrs. Winslow is stark and a tribute to both her longevity as an actor and the brilliance of her craft.
Ronnie has two siblings. First to make an impact is the simple Richard, or ‘Dickie’ to those near and dear. Having failed to make the grade for Osborne, Dickie is supplemented by his father on a rather tidy allowance of £300 per year to party his way through Oxford. If Dickie was to be a metaphor he’d be best described by his father’s words of his taste in music: “Those idiot sounds emanating from that room!” Theo Bamber plays the buffoon that is Dickie in a way reminiscent of P.G Wodehouse’s Wooster. The last of the Winslow family is the wonderful Kate, a leading light in the West London Suffragette movement, yet with a hefty dowry on her flame-coloured head, a fashionable wardrobe to match and at least two men hanging on her every word. The main being John Watherstone, a slick son of a colonel with money on his mind as much as love, William Bellchambers plays both the enchanted and the cad with ease. The other potential beau is the cricket star turned family solicitor that is Desmond Curry. Curry’s presence and eloquence of phrase is of little fancy to Kate’s taste; for the time being. Geff Francis as Curry cuts a fine figure, yet his role sees him reduced from his former cricketing glory to a touch of a cuckold to Kate’s whims. Kate, as you will see as the play unfolds is superbly acted by Dorothea Myer-Bennet and proves to be worth every penny of the ticket price. Last but by no means least of the household, is the ill-educated parlour maid that is Violet. 24 years as the Winslow’s heavy-handed and equally loose-lipped skivvy, both she and Dickie are often at the centre of the non-stop gags.
Back to the plot, which turns in on itself at every possible chance, Arthur refuses to believe his favourite could be accused of such evil and employs the finest mind in English law that is Sir Robert Morton. Intensely vile, abrupt, arrogant and devilishly clever, Morton has the boy brought before him and rips him to pieces in front of the family implying he is as guilty as sin. Before making his leave, he peers back at Ronnie’s possessions from Osborne and demands they are brought to his office before stating: “The boy is plainly innocent. I accept the brief!” Timothy Watson as Morton will leave you stunned.
The interval comes and goes and we return. The case gathers momentum as fast as Morton’s wallet strips the niceties from the Winslow house. Which nicely sets up the one significant set change and except Dickie’s Bunny Hop dancing shenanigans sees the musical interlude as stagehands and cast alike reduce the once sumptuous drawing room reduced to that of a family in decline, both in wealth, respect, décor, reputation and capability.
Everything gets put to the sword as a Petition of Right is induced and the motto of: “Let right be done” tremors from everyone’s lips.
In the two hours and 40 minutes of running time, Byron is mentioned, Voltaire and marriage get a laugh, and during the hushed moments and given both the depth of subject manner and intense concentration of both cast and audience, I felt duly noticeable while turning pages while making notes; thankfully, the fact that the paparazzi make many an appearance during the show calmed my nerves, a little.
Some people complain the Grand Opera House has ‘dumbed down’ in recent years. The Winslow Boy flies in the face of such notions.
The Winslow Boy runs until Saturday 05 May with matinees Thursday and Saturday. To book tickets visit www.goh.co.uk or phone the box office on 02890 241919. Ticket sales are going well though like tonight, there are some to be had. You know it makes sense.