There is something about Terence Rattigan that seems to defy rehabilitation. For all the remarks made by supposedly more radical writers such as David Rudkin and Harold Pinter about Rattigan's liberalism, his quiet passion, his discreet yet remorseless questioning of middle-class values, he continues to be perceived as safe, tweedy, antiquated, the kind of writer brushed aside by the playwriting revolution of the Fifties. In short, comfortably uncontentious for a Chichester summer production.
And indeed, director Christopher Morahan does nothing, on the face of it, remotely adventurous or innovative with The Winslow Boy. Simon Higlett's Edwardian drawing-room set could have been taken straight out of the Chichester stores, and a more flippant reviewer than I could almost say the same of some of the performances. The production looks and feels in every respect like a throwback, an irrelevance.
In every respect except that the play still works. It creeps up on you unobtrusively in the final half-hour or so; it doesn't even do anything as vulgar as ambushing you – you simply, suddenly realise that there the power of it is, and has been quietly all along. The story of an undistinguished middle-class post-Edwardian family harrying the government through Parliament and the courts to get their younger son's name cleared of having stolen a five-shilling postal order when at the Royal Naval College may seem as faintly absurd to us as Rattigan carefully confirms that it is to much of public opinion in the play itself. However, it is the very ordinariness of Arthur Winslow's obsession which, in Edward Hardwicke's finely judged performance, wins us round almost without our realising it. This Winslow is not a domestic tyrant; his curmudgeonliness is always wry, and is increasingly a way of coping with the strain of his pursuit of his son's case.
Elisabeth Dermot Walsh as his suffragette daughter Catherine rightly resists the temptation to overplay the character with Shavian stridency. David Rintoul enjoys the Olympian brusqueness of celebrated advocate Sir Robert Morton (based closely on Sir Edward Carson in the real-life Archer-Shee case which inspired Rattigan), but though Morton's conviction in the case may emerge as surprise, Rintoul does not let it become an inconsistency.
As so often, Rattigan is standing up for that most English and now most outmoded of virtues, decency. Not decency in the sense of prudery or sanctimony, but a simple, quiet dedication to the principle embodied in the wording of the legal petition which drives much of the play: "let right be done." Something about Rattigan defies rehabilitation, but in the end reminds you that he has never really needed it.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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