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The Winslow Boy at Bolton Octagon

Published by: Caroline May on 3rd Apr 2012 | View all blogs by Caroline May

Inspired by real events from just before the First World War, The Winslow Boy by Terence Rattigan examines what happens when a private individual stands up against the might of the British establishment.  As the struggle goes on with no prospect of success, the playwright shows how a whole family suffers for the cause, and questions whether that price is actually worth paying

Ronnie Winslow is a 13-year-old cadet who has been expelled from his naval college for stealing a postal order.  Ronnie maintains his innocence; his formidable father believes him and demands a further investigation.  But the naval college is ultimately under the control of the Admiralty, which considers that such a challenge would undermine its authority (especially with a war brewing) and is therefore reluctant to re-examine the case.

Political demonstrations, heated debates in the Houses of Parliament and tense cross-examinations in the High Court all form the backdrop to the Winslow case, yet Rattigan does his damnedest to keep any of this action off the stage, which can be very frustrating.  However David Thacker’s in-the-round production is warm, engaging and constantly interesting.

On press night the part of Ronnie was taken by Sam Ramsay, whose cheeky but cherubic looks suggested an alternative play, “Just William Goes to Court”.  His brother Dickie, a very unscholarly Oxford student, is played to absolute perfection by Iestyn Arwel: he looks like a portrait by John Singer Sargent and sounds like a character by PG Wodehouse, cheering up the play whenever he comes on.

Christopher Ravenscroft as the redoubtable father, Arthur Winslow, shows us a man whose body is frail but whose spirit remains strong – although benign on the surface he is cold enough to risk his older son’s career and his daughter’s marriage for the sake of a personal principle.  Georgina Strawson as his Suffragette daughter, Catherine, is more passionate and political, but endowed with a very feminine fragility.

Suzan Sylvester’s loving but unintellectual matriarch has a wonderful comic scene with Charlie Covell’s female reporter, whose trivial “Hello!” magazine questioning culminates in a ridiculous dialogue about the drawing-room curtains.  And Flaminia Cinque has some excellent moments as Violet, the badly-trained maid, whose crucial speech at the end goes all round the houses before the big reveal.

The star role of society barrister Sir Robert Morton is played with mock severity by Christopher Villiers.  Although called a “cold fish” by Catherine, and allowing for the occasional pompous moment, he is charming and amusing as well as kind and vulnerable, and I think this is one of the reasons why David Thacker’s production is so enjoyable.  On the page Rattigan’s characters are brittle, his dialogue is terse, and there’s a huge “So what?” factor hanging over the whole play because the main dramatic events are never seen, only reported.  But because the cast make their characters so real and interesting and engaging it is a pleasure to spend an evening in their company.

This wonderful and accomplished revival of a much loved classic is another winner from the Octagon.

The Winslow Boy is on at Bolton Octagon until Saturday 21 April 2012
Tickets: from £9.50
Performances Mon-Sat
Eves @ 7.30
Matinees: Sat 14 & Wed 18 @ 2pm
Box Office: 01204 520661



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