In 1947 when The Winslow Boy first hit Broadway, its author Terence Rattigan was in great favor, churning out hit after hit beginning with 1937’s French Without Tears and continuing well into the 1950s with The Browning Version, Separate Tables, Love in Idleness, Flare Path, O Mistress Mine, The Deep Blue Sea, The Sleeping Prince and many others that kept the West End and Broadway theatres filled for 20 years with products of his prolific pen.
There were screenplays too, lucrative ones like “The VIPs” and “The Yellow Rolls Royce”. Unfortunately, with the arrival in 1958 of the “angry young men” who followed John Osborne and his Look Back in Anger, Rattigan’s popularity dwindled and he left England to live quietly in Bermuda, writing plays that were produced but unprofitable. In the late 1960s he returned to England, where he was finally knighted by the Queen in 1970 for his contributions to British theatre. He died in 1977 at the age of 66, unaware, of course, of the posthumous acclaim that would come his way thirty years later.
Only occasional revivals of his most popular plays reminded us that he had been one of the most respected playwrights of his era, a true contender with Noël Coward for top honors during the first fifteen years of his career. Coward was fortunate in being multi-talented and when his plays lost favor he was able to sustain a respectable career as stage and screen star, and later in a surprise turn, as cabaret performer in Las Vegas!
Writing primarily of the upper middle classes, concerned with the values of his times, Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy is his crystal clear treatise on the values by which Arthur Winslow, head of his family, lives without compromise. In this tale of young Ronnie Winslow, accused of stealing a five pound postal money order and sent home in disgrace from school, he shows us how far one man will go to fight to insure that right will be done.
Rattigan writes without sentiment, for these are people who do not express emotion easily, but he captures the hearts and souls of this beleaguered family and makes quite human even the by-the-rules attorney, Sir Robert Morton, whom Winslow has hired to defend his son, even though the two year process of so doing brings chaos to his family, which includes his wife and two other children. It’s a morality tale, and it was swept away by the turn away from romanticism in British society in particular, and to varying degrees in the rest of the world as well.
Roger Rees returns to Broadway in the best role he’s had since Nicholas Nickelby, for which he won a Tony Award. Here he plays Arthur Winslow, the titular head of his family, the father of the accused boy Ronnie.
It’s a masterful performance, full of humor, rage, compassion, all delivered with consummate professional skill. He has used all his skills in a long career, as actor and director in England and the U.S. Among many other distinctive credits, he is also the co-author of the book to Jersey Boys, which makes his towering performance as Winslow all the more remarkable.
His wife is played with conviction by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, another gifted artist who has played in musicals (Man of LaMancha), dramas (The View from the Bridge), and comedies (Twelfth Night) with equal ease. A worthy adversary to her unyielding husband in this play, she beautifully conveys the struggle she faces as she supports him in a cause to which she’s not as devoted as he.
The boy of the title, Ronnie Winslow, is in the fine hands of Spencer David Milford, making an auspicious Broadway debut after an enviable background for one so young, filled with regional theatre and road tours. Despite the circumstantial evidence piled high against his character, he had me rooting for him from the get go. Alessandro Nivola, whose background is mostly in film, is a delightful discovery for me. As Sir Robert Morton, “the best defense lawyer in Britain”, he gives his character the star quality he must have to be allowed the demands he makes on all who cross his path, managing simultaneously to show us his feelings for Catherine Winslow, Ronnie’s sister, who is engaged to a stuffed shirt named John who proves to be as superficial as he appears.
And then there is the marvelous Michael Cumpsty, first billed in the cast list, but playing a minor supporting role superbly. He is Desmond Curry, assistant to the estimable Sir Robert, who takes his big scene and fills it with rich invention. Again, the truth of the axiom: “There are no small roles … ”
I give credit to Lindsay Posner who directed the original production of this arrival at the Old Vic, who now re-creates it with a brand new cast, yet makes it all seem fresh and new as though he’d just conceived it yesterday. Sets, costumes, musical background, bang up curtain lines staged and delivered in the best tradition of “well made theatre,” it’s refreshing to be reminded now and then of what the best of the products from the era of craft gave us. That craft has, temporarily I hope, slipped away from us. The Winslow Boy is a prime example of the kind of work the Roundabout Theatre does when it’s on the mark. A full house joined me in hurrahs and hosannas (I even heard a number of “woo woos” from the younger generation) at the end of this eloquent revisiting of a very fine play.
The Winslow Boy is onstage through December 1, 2013 at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, New York, NY. Details and tickets.