Review: The Winslow Boy at Cambridge Arts Theatre a house turned up-side-down for five shillings

Misha Butler as Ronnie Winslow and Soo Drouet as the maid Violet in The Winslow Boy at Cambridge Art

Misha Butler as Ronnie Winslow and Soo Drouet as the maid Violet in The Winslow Boy at Cambridge Arts Theatre - Credit: Archant

The evil Rob Titchener, the wicked husband in Radio 4’s The Archers, who personified “coercive control” and ended up both being jeered at in the street and asked to open village fetes, stole the show on the opening night of The Winslow Boy at Cambridge Arts Theatre.

The play took off when actor Timothy Watson appeared as barrister Sir Robert Morton. The action moved like a rocket once he started cross-examining the boy as a way of deciding whether or not to take his case.

In the real-life story, the barrister examined the boy for three hours.

Terence Rattigan’s play was inspired by that case, which dates to 1908, before the playwright was born. Cadet George Archer-Shee aged 13 was expelled from naval college, accused of stealing a five-shilling postal order from another boy. The case dragged on for three years with George’s father, a banker, insisting on clearing his son’s name and the boy eventually represented by leading barrister Sir Edward Carson.

The case went to the Court of Appeal once, to the High Court twice and was debated in the House of Commons. Because it was the boy’s family against the Admiralty, it was in effect a middle class family against the King.

The real George had an older brother and older sisters but Rattigan, who collected old court cases, thought this one was a good example of British justice, gave it another dimension. Writing in 1948, he turned George Archer-Shee into Ronnie Winslow and looked at the effect on the whole household.

Ronnie is given a sister, Kate a socialist and suffragette, (played adroitly by Dorothea Myer-Bennett) engaged to a young man whose family disapprove of the stubbornness of the Winslow family in fighting their cause. Fiancé John Watherstone, played deftly by William Belchambers, is threatened with disinheritance by his father if he goes through with the marriage.

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The first night audience loved this production which is laced with humour despite having an earnest debate running through it. There are well-rounded performances from Misha Butler as Ronnie, Soo Drouet as the maid Violet and Tessa Peake-Jones as Ronnie’s mother Grace who questions whether it was worth

the sacrifices the family makes, financial and emotional, to clear a boy of such a petty misdemeanour? Would anyone have known about the boy and the postal order if the father hadn’t made such a fuss about it?

Kate is told she is fighting two lost causes, her brother’s and the impossible dream of women having a vote. When the haughty but now somewhat humbled Sir Robert Morton asks her at the end of the play if he will see her again in the Commons, the audience held its breath as she answered: “Yes but not in the gallery... across the floor.” In many ways, this is a play of another time – but that line is still moving.