By Terence Rattigan
Directed by Rachel Kavanaugh
Company: Birmingham Repertory Theatre in association with Mark Goucher and Gavin Kalin
Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre
Date: Monday 12th February 2018
This is one of our favourite Rattigan plays, and tonight we saw a very good performance of it. Being a touring production, the set had loosened its corsets and spread itself out on the vast main stage, but there was still lots of room around the edges. This might have weakened many a lesser production, but the cast here were well up to the challenge, and gave us a finely detailed version of the play with plenty of humour.
The set was straightforward. Two walls, with the French doors to the garden in the left wall and the doors to the dining room and front hall on the right with an upright piano in the remaining space. Along with the sofa on the left and a chaise on the right, there was an assortment of tables, chairs, and lamps, with pictures on the walls and patterned rugs on the floor. The record player was behind the sofa at the start, as was the telephone. The walls were pale green.
They began with Ronnie Winslow (Misha Butler), in uniform, alone on stage with a spotlight on him, and military sounds in the background. He saluted, and then the lights came up on the rest of the stage just before Violet, the maid, came in. Violet (Soo Drouet) was as friendly and chatty as usual, and although there was plenty of humour on offer, the audience was taking a little time to warm up.
Ronnie was soon off down the garden when the family returned from church. Grace Winslow (Tessa Peake-Jones) arranged for her husband, Arthur (Aiden Gillet) to speak with John (William Belchambers) when he arrived. John was keen to marry their daughter, Catherine Winslow (Dorothea Myer-Bennett), and both women wanted Arthur and John to have an opportunity for a private chat, so they slipped into the dining room before John arrived.
The conversation between father and prospective fiancé was nicely done, with Arthur Winslow showing that his years as a bank manager had given him a sound grasp of people’s income levels. He basically rattled off all of John’s income streams and totalled them up, so when he thanked John for being so “frank and informative”, we laughed. Poor John hardly spoke a word, but William Belchambers got across his nervousness in the situation very well.
With Mr Winslow out of the room – looking for something special to have with lunch to celebrate the engagement – a very wet Ronnie appeared at the French windows and spoke to Catherine. She read the letter he’d been sent home with, and the story gradually came out. He’d been dismissed from Osborne for stealing some money, and was seriously frightened of his father finding out. Catherine fetched Grace, who whisked Ronnie up to his room, and the rest of the family agreed to keep his presence from Arthur until after lunch.
The final arrival for lunch was Desmond Curry (Geff Francis), the family solicitor who had been in love with Catherine for a long time, though he’d never approached her about it. Violet had let him into the secret (of the engagement) in the hall, so there were a few awkward moments when he came into the room, and despite John’s enthusiastic respect when he learned that Desmond was, in fact, the D W H Curry – a famous cricketer – it didn’t help that he remembered having a signed photograph of Desmond when he was a schoolboy.
Arthur returned with a bottle of madeira for a toast before lunch. Violet brought the glasses, and there was one left over when all the family and guests had been served. Arthur assumed it was for Violet herself, but although she took a glass of the wine quite happily, she cheerfully excused herself from any machinations by stating that she’d “brought it for Master Ronnie”.
This wasn’t the funniest Ronnie revelation we’ve seen, but it did bring about a complete change of atmosphere. At first puzzled by her statement, Arthur Winslow quickly gathered that Ronnie was back at home, while the rest of the family, having tried to keep this a secret, became very quiet. The letter which Ronnie had brought with him was read out (by Grace), and then Arthur sent for Ronnie to come down. He spoke briefly with the boy, who insisted that he hadn’t stolen the postal order as he’d been accused of doing. Satisfied, Arthur sent him back up to bed, and put through a call to Osborne House before joining the rest in the dining room for lunch. End of Act 1.
The second act began with Dickie (Theo Bamber) and Catherine chatting and trying out some period dance steps. Dickie is around a fair bit in Act 1, but it’s in this act that Arthur tells Dickie he can no longer afford to send him to Oxford. Admittedly, studying doesn’t seem to be Dickie’s forte, but he was understandably upset at missing out.
Arthur sent him out for the evening with a couple of sovereigns (money, not monarchs) before receiving a visit from a lady journalist Miss Barnes (Sarah Lambie). She was accompanied by Fred (Oscar Morgan), a photographer, and they were doing a piece on young Ronnie and the case. Or rather, she was focused on the human-interest side of the story, while Arthur was more concerned about getting the facts of the case across to the public. This is a lovely little scene, allowing Arthur to bring the audience up to speed on the events of the past nine months, and Rattigan to show us the banality of the tabloid press. This lady journo was certainly tactless, and far more interested in the Winslow’s curtains than in the case.
The rest of the act was devoted to preparations for and the arrival of Sir Robert Morton (Timothy Watson), the barrister whom Arthur hopes will take on their case. Sir Robert’s politics were diametrically opposed to Catherine’s, but she was the one who had to ‘entertain’ Sir Robert when he arrived. From there, the scene built to one of the most dramatic climaxes in theatre: after interrogating Ronnie ruthlessly, and accusing him of being “a forger, a liar, and a thief”, Sir Robert left the room having accepted the brief. The family were astonished, but followed him out, leaving Arthur alone on the stage in a spotlight. Interval.
This wasn’t the most dramatic exit that we’ve seen in this play, but it was still a good performance and by now the audience were sufficiently engaged to respond much more strongly. Sir Robert was a bit low-key at first, and when he sat rather primly on the sofa I was reminded of Professor Teerlinck (Koen de Bouw) from the Belgian crime drama Professor T. We didn’t spot the crew making any significant changes to the room during the interval, so the second half started with the radio playing music while Mrs Winslow, Arthur and Ronnie came on and took up their places.
When the music stopped, the play restarted. Mr Winslow was reading the report from the paper on the House of Commons debate on the Petition of Right which Sir Robert had instigated in an attempt to force a proper trial of the allegation against Ronnie. Ronnie himself was very tired and soon nodded off, despite his claims to the contrary when his father woke him up. Mrs Winslow was doing some needlework, so it was mainly the audience who were paying attention to Mr Winslow.
His narration was eventually curtailed by various interruptions: reporters in the hall, Catherine back from the court, Violet with some sandwiches and letter, Sir Robert looking in to give them an update, etc. This told us where the case now stood, but more importantly, it gave us a chance to see how the case had been affecting the members of the family. Ronnie was fine with it all – still snoozing on the sofa – but Mr Winslow was looking very tired, his finances were severely diminished, and he raised the subject of dismissing Violet with his wife. Not for the first time, from the sounds of things, and not for the first time she put him off.
It’s funny how often conflicts over apparently trivial events can serve to highlight major fault lines in all areas of life – financial, political and social. This case of “Ronnie Winslow and his bally postal order” has just that knack of raising issues that are profoundly important over a relatively small amount of money and the future of a young boy who, but for the publicity of the case, would probably have lived a happy and fulfilled life. Within a few minutes of discussing the Violet question, Grace and Arthur came to the nub of the problem: what is the point of keeping the case going when it isn’t doing Ronnie any good? For Arthur, it was a case of righting an injustice, and he was prepared to make any sacrifice to that end. Grace was more concerned about Ronnie and their other children, as well as Arthur himself. She gave us the humane side of the argument, while Arthur represented the man of integrity protecting his family.
There was also Catherine and Dickie to consider too. Dickie we already knew about: no more Oxford and working in a bank (as we find out in the final act). But there was still a chance for Catherine. The letter which came for Arthur contained an ultimatum from John’s father: give up the case or the wedding’s off. To be fair, he was only threatening to do his best to stop the marriage, but when John turned up it appeared that the prospect of losing his father’s allowance, especially since Arthur wouldn’t be able to give Catherine anything, made all the difference. It was good to see someone standing up for common sense and refusing to be ashamed for stressing the importance of a good income. Catherine also had a chance to express her views on the importance of the case, and for her it was about holding the government to account, and not allowing it to get away with mistreating any of its citizens, even a thirteen-year-old boy.
Since it looked like the case might be coming to an end anyway, she might have been able to stay engaged to John. But before she could do anything, Sir Robert was called to the telephone, and after listening for a short spell, announced that the First Lord of the Admiralty had been persuaded by pressure from the floor of the House to instruct the Attorney General to allow the case to go ahead. When Sir Robert looked to Arthur for approval to proceed, Arthur looked to Catherine, whose future now hung in the balance. She made her choice.
Before the final act, the room was finally stripped of some of its furniture and pictures, though it didn’t end up looking as bare as some sets we’ve seen. Dickie arrived first, and chatted quite happily to a journalist on the telephone, not that he had a lot of information to give them. Mrs Winslow was much brisker – when the telephone rang she just answered it, said “Everyone out” and put it back down again. Through all of this we were brought up to speed on the situation – the verdict was due the next day – and then we found that Mr Winslow was in a wheelchair – the case was wearing him down even more.
Mrs Winslow and Dickie left for the trial’s afternoon session after Catherine came home, with her report on the latest events and some additional sneering at Sir Robert: today, he’d been ‘pretending’ to feel unwell. Desmond arrived and asked for a word alone with Catherine. She knew perfectly well what was coming, as did we, although she hadn’t expected it. Desmond made a heartfelt declaration of his love for Catherine, and although it seemed clear that she would turn him down, she was polite enough to ask him for a few days to consider his proposal. Before he left for the court, he did let slip one piece of confidential information which affected Catherine significantly: that Sir Robert had turned down an invitation to become Lord Chief Justice, all because he wanted to continue with the Winslow case.
With Catherine pondering this piece of news, and revising her opinion of Sir Robert as a result, Violet returned with…well, she almost told them the result of the trial, but what with cook’s hat being knocked off and everyone shouting and crying and how wonderful it all was, she didn’t actually manage to tell them anything directly. But we knew (sniff, sniff). Sir Robert followed almost immediately, and gave them the details: basically, the prosecution had withdrawn the accusation and exonerated Ronnie completely.
With Mr Winslow out of the room, talking to the reporters clustered outside the house, Catherine and Sir Robert had a chance to talk. This is always an interesting part of the play: with the case won, the emphasis now is on the future for these two – will they become an item? The play itself leaves it tantalisingly open, and tonight I felt that, while they respected each other, there was less chance of a romantic outcome. Catherine’s final “across the floor” sounded more like a challenge to male domination of the political arena, and suggested she would be putting more effort into the women’s suffrage movement from now on. The play ended with her alone on stage, again in a spotlight.
This was a very well-balanced production, with good performances in all the roles. The play is a masterpiece – re-reading the text has just reminded me of the elegant way Rattigan constructed it – and always gives satisfaction, and when the cast do their jobs well, as they did tonight, it gives us a lot of pleasure to watch. The audience got better as the play went on, and it was lovely to see so many familiar faces in the cast. I hope they have a great time on this tour.
© 2018 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me