As a play about the fundamental issue of human rights and the importance of ensuring access to justice, Terence Rattigan's classic play about a boy accused of stealing a five shilling postal order seems more up to date than ever. Written in 1946 and set just before World War One, it's a favourite of amateur dramatic societies but less often revived in the professional theatre. But while some of the dialogue and characters, including a comic parlourmaid and a stuffy cricket-playing solicitor, seem a bit cobwebby, the central story hasn't dated a bit.
The amateur production I saw on Saturday was excellent (congratulations, Shoreham Players!) and a reminder of what a skilled craftsman Rattigan is; in the opening scene the disgraced naval cadet Ronnie returns to the family home from college two days early, unseen except by the maid. When the family return from church, they don't know he has gone to hide in the garden -- but the audience knows it, and senses that something is deeply amiss. Dramatic irony of this kind and the use of subtext to disguise passionate feeling are the twin hallmarks of Rattigan's writing. The main plot of the play isn't about love and passion, but the emotions in the Winslow family get increasingly raw as the parents squabble, the sister's engagement is called off, the elder brother has to leave Oxford and the maid risks the sack as they fight to clear Ronnie's name. Rattigan raises the stakes all the time without forcing his very ordinary middle class English characters to betray their stiff-upper-lip background. The emotions get increasingly intense, but they largely remain below the surface of the dialogue. Catherine, Ronnie's sister, is the most interesting and fully created character in the play -- a suffragette whose personal dilemma is finely balanced and exquisitely expressed. As the member of the family with most to lose, she nonetheless opts to back her father's legal battle on behalf of his son and is furious when he suggests giving up. The price she pays is the loss of her fiance, a dullish army officer. Rattigan delicately shows her initial prejudice against Sir Robert Morton, the 'cold fish' of a Tory barrister whose dramatic decision to take on the case forms the climax of Act One. Later on she realises she has misjudged Morton; there's a subtle hint of mutual attraction between these political opposites in the scene which Rattigan uses to end the play. While the rest of the family celebrate the legal win, Catherine sits there seemingly devastated by the news that the despised and supercilious Morton has turned down the chance to be Lord Chief Justice in order to fight the Winslow boy's case.
Having seen quite a few Rattigan plays in 2011, the year of his centenary, I wasn't surprised by his theatrical skill in The Winslow Boy. How many authors can create all the tension and suspense of a court case without actually setting any of the scenes in the courtroom? What surprised me was the play's very contemporary theme. 'Let right be done' is the theme of the legal battle against the odds which Ronnie Winslow's father launches to clear his son's name. Rattigan dedicated the play to the young Master Paul Channon, the son of his wealthy Tory lover 'Chips' Channon, 'in the hope that he will live to see a world in which this play will point no moral'. Rattigan, it shouldn't be forgotten, was a liberal leftwinger, not a crusty Tory, despite his champagne lifestyle. What is important in the story of Ronnie is not whether or not he stole a five shilling postal order, but whether he has the right to a fair trial in the face of the 'despotism' of a government bureaucracy which has closed ranks and condemned him without a hearing. Sounds familiar? Of course it does. You don't have to be an expert on the European Convention of Human Rights and the Human Rights Act, neither of which had been written when Rattigan wrote the play, to understand the need for them. While the Daily Mail, the Sun and large elements of the Conservative party want to scrap these vital guarantees, Rattigan's play reminds us that sometimes the respectable middle classes need their rights protected too, for the most unexpected reasons. 'No one party has a monopoly of concern for individual liberty. On that issue all parties are united,' Sir Robert tells Catherine in the final scene. She is unpersuaded: 'Only some people from all parties,' she counters. 'That is a wise remark. We can only hope, then, that those same people will always prove enough people,' he replies.