If you aren’t already familiar with the 1946 play The Winslow Boy, by Terrence Rattigan, you are in for a special evening. The story tells of Ronnie Winslow, a 13-year-old boy, who is kicked out of military school for stealing a 5-pound postal note. Once the boy swears his innocence to his father, as portrayed by the incredibly impressive Roger Rees, Arthur Winslow puts all his resources and energies towards proving his son’s innocence and clearing his son’s reputation.
It’s not easy to get the case tried since Admiralty decisions were official acts of the government and the government could not be sued without its own consent. So the case goes on for years, costing the family a large amount of money and pain. Since his tuition is quite costly, Dickie, the older son, has to withdraw from Oxford. However, Dickie himself gives odds against his completion of school. Suffragette sister Catherine’s engagement is threatened by the law case, but she’s more concerned with principle than reputation. Most importantly of all, Arthur’s health is affected. In the first act, he’s got a cane and complains of leg pains, but toward the end he must use a wheel chair.
The wordy, albeit beautifully written and expertly acted play is based on a true story that spans two years, from 1912 to 1914, preceding World War I. Often, characters read newspaper letters to the editor aloud about the Winslow case in which people wonder why Parliament is dealing with such a trivial matter when there are greater international issues to contend with. For Arthur, reputation is not trivial and he continues on.
By the end of the play, lawyer Sir Robert Morton, a famous jurist, weeps at the verdict. Alessandro Nivola plays the lawyer and the audience reacts to him the way Catherine (Charlotte Parry) does. He’s supercilious and haughty, and undoubtedly has taken this minor case to get publicity, possibly winning a judgeship. Yet as Cate softens toward him, so does the audience. In great part the change is attributed to Nivola’s skill in thawing out an icy character. Rees is superb as the father with his rigidity, feared by his sons, yet willing to risk everything for their welfare. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Mrs. Winslow brings nice balance to her determined husband. Henny Russell is charming as the dotty maid who never filters her comments, and the always wonderful Michael Cumpsty plays the steadfast family lawyer.
The show starts slowly and is very talky; it requires intense concentration. Those with hearing problems or with tickets in the mezzanine should use the theater hearing devices. In addition to the British accents, some may also have a problem understanding the concept of British law- traditionally expressed by the Attorney General answering a petition of right with the formula answer “Let right be done.”
Is it a matter of justice or a matter of right? This show requires undivided attention from its audience, but the reward is well worth it.