What do Terence Rattigan and Mike Bartlett have in common? Making the town of Reading the butt of their jokes apparently. I shouldn’t start my review in such a facetious way, as this fine production of a near perfect play deserves better, but I can’t help it.
But let’s get back to the business at hand: Terence Rattigan’s play, about a small case fought with absolute conviction that justice can’t be measured in a balance sheet, feels fresh, unexpected and rich in every way. With its big themes, small distilled moments and perfectly observed relationships, it is a dream for any director and cast. And Lindsay Posner and his actors grab the opportunity and do it justice.
What I found irresistible is the play’s ability to surprise: it’s in turns a family drama, a legal battle, a coming of age story, a polemic about the media and even at the very end it dares to become a tantalisingly brief but perfect romantic comedy. Every character is gifted with at least one moment of taking centre stage and defying expectations.
Henry Goodman plays Arthur Winslow with exquisite tenderness and enough bittersweet doubt to make the character all the more interesting. Deborah Findlay plays a woman of profound insight and perfect frivolity with absolute conviction. Peter Sullivan as sir Robert Morton is charismatic, appropriately sweeping with an undercurrent of wit and humour. Young Charlie Rowe plays Ronnie with confidence that belies his inexperience on stage. Wendy Nottingham is warm and funny without overplaying her character’s eccentricities. I admit I initially felt that Naomi Frederick and Nick Hendrix were a little bit too mannered but they relaxed eventually and won me over.
The set and costumes (french windows, double doors and rich textures) are classic Old Vic. The lighting beautifully captures times of day and seasons, with the unobtrusive softness of time going by.
The last word belongs to the “real” Winslow boy. The play is set in the eve of the first world war. Ronnie’s mother says at some point: “As it is, whatever happens now, he’ll be known as the boy who stole that postal order.” You get the feeling young Ronnie might face a worse fate. George Archer-Shee, whose story inspired the play and Ronnie’s character, was reported missing in action at the first battle of Ypres.
P.S. So, what about those Reading jokes? Is Reading the town where fun goes to die? Kenneth, one of the characters in Love, Love, Love by Mike Bartlett, laments: “We live in Reading. Something has gone wrong”. In The Winslow Boy, a play written sixty years earlier, Dickie Winslow has this to say when his father voices suspicions about his late hours and party lifestyle. “You can’t keep late hours in Reading.” I rest my case.