The Winslow Boy Review: A Feminist Comedy Before Its Time?

The Winslow Boy American Airlines TheatreHow far would you go to right a wrong; what would you sacrifice? What if the wrong were trivial?

These are the questions addressed by “The Winslow Boy,”  a satisfying old-fashioned play by Terence Rattigan that Roundabout has revived on Broadway for the first time since its 1947 debut, with a first-rate cast led by Roger Rees.

The story of The Winslow Boy is familiar to many because of the well-received 1999 film adaptation of the same name that was written and directed by David Mamet.

It is based on a true story of a lawsuit brought in 1910 against the British Admiralty on behalf of a teenage naval cadet named George Archer-Shee,  who was expelled for having stolen a five-shilling postal note from a classmate.  This was not only an insignificant amount; he steadfastly denied stealing it. His father, an official with the Bank of England, led a crusade that caught on with the British public,  the matter winding up being debated in Parliament and in the popular press, and reaching the British High Court of Justice.

It is difficult to understand what exactly about this case so excited the British public at the turn of the 20th century, although one suspects it has something to do with general frustration at the high-handed actions of public officials at the expense of individuals – not an entirely irrelevant subject in the United States in 2013.  But the appeal of “The Winslow Boy” comes not just from the theme of individuals standing up for what’s right.  Rattigan’s play is a look at family dynamics and changing political consciousness grafted onto a conventional drawing room comedy (which in fact, unlike the movie, takes place entirely in a drawing room.)

It was apparently seen differently during its six-month run on Broadway in 1947, when reviews, while positive, were unmistakably condescending: in the New Yorker Magazine, Wolcott Gibbs deemed it a “good, presentable entertainment, suitable for all the family and guaranteed not to antagonize important guests.”

It is perhaps in part a reflection of current Broadway fare – and perhaps in part of Lindsay Posner’s direction – that this first Broadway revival, scheduled for a limited run just until December 1, seems more substantial. By the end of the play, each of the members of the Winslow family – the expelled cadet Ronni (Spencer Davis Milford), his father Arthur (Roger Rees), his mother Grace (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), his brother Dickie (Zachary Booth) and his sister Catherine (Charlotte Parry) – suffer stress and make tangible sacrifices in pursuit of the case. In some ways, Catherine is the  surprising center of the play — a modern, liberal woman, and a suffragette, who draws the attention of three men: her fiance John Watherstone, the stuffy son of a military man (Chandler Williams); the family attorney Desmond Curry (Michael Cumpsty) a shy and proper man who has always loved her, and the high-powered attorney, Sir Robert Morton (Alessandro Nivola), whom the family retains to pursue the case, and whose political beliefs clash with her own. The tension between Sir Robert and Catherine is a formula for romance, but Rattigan defies the formula.  In the interaction between Catherine and these three men seems to lurk the makings of a crypto-feminist play — which, who knows, may be a reason why the (male) critics in 1947 so readily dismissed it as trivial.

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Billed as a transfer of the production done by the Old Vic in London, the play features set and costume design by Peter McKintosh that emphasizes how British it is – the designs are both sumptuous and staid. The play, at two hours and 45 minutes (including intermission), takes its time. But the surprising humor, and the vibrant and detailed performances of the cast, especially Roger Rees, who noticeably deteriorates over the two years that the play takes place, and Charlotte Parry as his equally stubborn daughter, offer so much more juice than the more overtly relevant (and far duller) play of Rattigan’s that the Roundabout revived two years ago starring Frank Langella , Man and Boy. “The Winslow Boy,” the 18th production of a Rattigan play on Broadway, but only the third over the last 40 years,  is more likely to make theatergoers wonder what else of his may be worth reviving.

The Winslow Boy

At American Airlines Theater

By Terence Rattigan

Directed by Lindsay Posner

Set and costume design by Peter McKintosh, lighting design by David Lander, sound design by Drew Levy

Cast: Roger Rees, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Cumpsty, Alessandro Nivola, Zachary Booth, Spencer Davis Milford , Charlotte Parry, Chandler Williams, Meredith Forlenza, Stephen Pilkington, Henny Russell

Running time:  2 hours and 45 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission

Tickets: $52 – $137

The Winslow Boy is set to close December 1, 2013

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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