Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 17, 2013
The Winslow Boy Roundabout Theatre Company presents The Old Vic production of The Winslow Boy by Terence Rattigan. Directed by Lindsay Posner. Set & costume design by Peter McKintosh. Lighting design by David Lander. Sound design by Drew Levy. Original music by Michael Bruce. Hair & wig design by Paul Huntley. Dialect Coach Stephen Gabis. Cast: Michael Cumpsty, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Alessandro Nivola, Roger Rees, with Zachary Booth, Spencer Davis Milford, Charlotte Parry, Chandler Williams, Meredith Forlenza, Stephen Pilkington, Henny Russell.
Looking at things from that angle, the Old Vic production of The Winslow Boy, which Roundabout is now presenting at the American Airlines, takes on intriguing dimensions this professional but unremarkable mounting of Terence Rattigan’s 1946 play would not easily earn otherwise. Oh, it suffices as a pure human story, and has just enough twists to keep you engaged in a tale that stops noticeably short of being riveting. But it is far more relevant to Americans today — literally, today, as it happens — for its depiction of the “grassroots” versus the “establishment.”
Don’t misunderstand: It’s difficult not to be stirred by the plight of a loving, but financially shaky father, Arthur Winslow (Roger Rees), in pre–World War I London who sacrifices his meager fortune and his health to defend his son, Ronnie (Spencer Davis Milford), after he’s ejected from a military academy for stealing a small money order — which Ronnie insists he didn’t do, despite a terrifying amount of evidence to the contrary. But treacle is inevitable, and when Arthur is confined to a wheelchair, his wife (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) reduced to tears from the strife, and everyone thrust to the brink of poverty, the emotional manipulation is distractingly dusty.
It’s the obstacles the Winslows face, and their efforts to overcome them, that hit home far more in our current climate. Arthur’s initial disbelief in his son’s story. The grilling to which the high-powered and high-priced lawyer, Sir Robert Morton (Alessandro Nivola), subjects the boy as a gauge of his innocence. The oppressive press, the unsympathetic judge, and especially the family that’s torn apart by the two-year struggle... At each point along the way, as everyone is forced to give up something, ranging from privacy (for all of them) to a potential husband (for social-crusading daughter Catherine, played by Charlotte Parry), you become as caught up as everyone onstage is in wondering, “Is it worth it?”
The answer to that overarching question, especially as filtered through the prism of contemporary politics, will naturally be different for everyone. As to whether this revival is worth it, that ultimately depends on your tolerance level for movie-of-the-week–level, female empowerment–oriented legal dramas. The Winslow Boy is far from complex to begin with; aside from “did he or didn’t he?”, the biggest concern on its mind is whether Catherine will succeed in outshining the men who are trying to dominate her.
At its premiere, this was a period piece; now it borders on the unrecognizable, hardly aided by its lack of guts. (Which proved essential to the success of Roundabout’s revival of Rattigan’s Man and Boy two years ago.) But Parry’s performance proves to be just the anchor that aspect of the play needs. She embodies every bit of the intelligence and fire Catherine needs, but keeps one foot rooted in the Victorian era. You sense throughout that she’s trying to break free of the bonds of the past, but is unable to, and Parry keeps you focused on her attempts to effect change in a time and place when they weren’t exactly seen as necessary (let alone welcome at all). Parry earns every moment and never lets this aspect of the plot become as hokey as it so often seems to want to.
But most of the acting is good. Rees’s transformation from gently aging to legitimately broken is beautifully judged, and Nivola invests his character with a self-confidence and determination that convince you immediately that Robert is as good as everyone claims he is. Chandler and Cumpsty are solidly entertaining as Catherine’s romantic foils, as are Mastrantonio, charming but underused, Meredith Forlenza as a drape-obsessed reporter, and Henny Russell as the comically ill-equipped maid. Only Milford is not up to the task he faces, and, especially in the earlier scenes, is gratingly unbelievable as the adolescent Ronnie.
Lindsay Posner’s direction is efficient but unexciting; much the same can be said of the at once attractive but cheap-looking set by Peter McKintosh (who also designed the somewhat more sumptuous period costumes). The impression comes early, and never really departs, that no one is entirely sure how to spice up a play that doesn’t qualify as much more than a marshmallow-flavored theatrical snack these days.
So the government shutdown and its associated headlines could be the best thing to have happened to this revival — and, at least until the next crisis wipes it from our collective memory, remains the most compelling reason to see it. You’ll be reminded that some problems have always been with us and always will be, but that waging the battle often offers rewards beyond traditional concepts of success and failure. Win or lose, getting in the game is important, and The Winslow Boy hosts it now about as well as can be expected.