The Winslow Boy – Witty words at the Genesian. (Theatre Review)

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The Winslow Boy

17 January to 14 February at The Genesian Theatre

You can grab your tickets here.

Photography credits Mark Banks

Life for lawyers is changing. One of the great unintentional by-products of mass communication on the internet is the redistribution of power via a demystification of elitism. Vocations such as lawyers and merchant bankers that benefited enormously from boys clubs, nepotism and high level networking behind closed doors are finding those shady barriers breaking down.  It’s their own fault of course. For years they’ve used social media, branded bling and television to brag about their lifestyles. Now these industries are glutted with enormously talented graduates, determined to make it, with no old school job placements gifted. When the privileged right claimed their rewards were born of hard work and a competitive edge, they had no idea that young people from all walks of life were listening and would work harder and seek a stronger competitive edge in order to break into the hallowed halls. The horror story for a lawyer in 2015, is to face the fact of financial undercutting as internet savvy customers pick and choose from the highest quality service, based on price. Say goodbye to the billing hour, boys.

However, the fact remains that the cost of litigation is not only measured in dollars. While successful small to medium business owners might be able to shop around, a fair trial is still a long way from the average income earner who is not naturally set up to spend what can amount to several emotionally taxing years in court, sometimes for something as simple as defending their good name against an erroneous or unprovoked attack. The question then remains, how can the law claim any sort of impartiality, if it favours those strategically set up to use its very complex tools? It is this subject that Terence Rattigan and director Nanette Frew tackle in Rattigan’s play The Winslow Boy, a well-known and much-loved tale that is horribly and remarkably contemporary in subject. Considering the play was written in 1946, and is based on a true life incident that occurred in 1908, The Winslow Boy is remarkable for the growing urgency of its subject matter the more time moves on. One hundred and seven years after the Stonyhurst incident, we still don’t know how to make the legal system equitable.

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Frew has chosen a fairly straightforward approach to the current production of The Winslow Boy at the Genesian theatre, stripping down some of its moral ambiguities to leave us with the simple central question of the growing cost of doing the right thing. Young Matthew Balkus’ performance as Ronnie Winslow is so completely innocent, this current audience isn’t naturally led toward a jury judgement on his behaviour. Arthur Winslow (David Stewart-Hunter) isn’t so much a misguided favouritist accidentally causing battles between his sons as he is a wise and caring father, whose judgement of his children is based on stark observations, and while our sympathies might be sparked by Dickie Winslow’s (Lachlan McNab) plight, McNab plays him very much the sparky sexy rogue whose anger subsides quickly in favour of opportunity. So Frew strips away all the grey to leave us with the simple premise that the Winslow’s band together to protect their youngest who has been harshly treated without cause, and it comes at great cost to each of them personally.

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Despite the contemporary nature of the subtext, The Winslow Boy is an old play with delightfully clever language (it’s still very funny) that Nanette Frew manages to imbue with new life through her exuberant cast. Special attention has been paid to smaller roles, something the Geneisan weren’t so strong with in the past, so that roles such as Desmond Curry are delightfully nuanced and given great care by the performer, in this case Tom Massey. Meg Mooney as Violet is also strongly placed as Mooney manages to evoke an essential warmth in the audience in the first act that contributes strongly to the primary narrative arc of the second. These are lovely, delicate performances that tug at the heart-strings, Massey and Mooney taking smaller character roles and filling them out beautifully, bringing all their supposed history to their brief time on stage. The other smaller roles, Dave Prickett as the spineless John Watherstone, Jane Thorpe as the gossipy journalist more interested in curtains than facts, and the sparring aforementioned brothers (Balkus and McNab as Ronnie and Dickie) have been attentively nurtured to bring their own personality to their roles. McNab is particularly good as Dickie, bringing a saucy joy to one of the hard done by Winslow’s.

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These performances gather around and nurture the primary roles of the parents, Arthur and Grace Winslow (Stewart-Hunter and Lois Marsh) and the other to be or not to be couple of Sonya Kerr as Catherine Winslow and Roger Gimblett as Sir Robert Morton. Marsh and Stewart-Hunter subdue the Winslow parents, particularly when compared with the stiffer though much admired David Mamet film production, drawing the pair closer to a modern reality that imbues the characters with a lightness that brings home the implication that, they didn’t know what they were getting themselves into when they righteously decided to defend their child. Despite the language, they’re a thoroughly modern version of this couple.

Sonya Kerr is absolutely delightful as Catherine Winslow, and a pure joy to watch moving around the stage. Like McNab’s Dickie, she plays Catherine with a cheeky wit that deepens her character, particularly in her struggles for female emancipation in the face of the essential on going engagement with the world around her. The Winslow Boy could be performed in such a way as to turn against Catherine’s sufferage, but Kerr is so in command of her material this becomes impossible. The sly comment about her hat giving her a bet both ways is met with Kerr’s grace and dignity underlying the strength of Catherine’s character. It’s a great performance, and a real joy watching Kerr bring this much-loved character to life.

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Roger Gimblett, again against the Mamet version, gives Sir Robert Morton dignity born of experience a very slight but important shift that grounds this production in a contemporary feel. Gimblett’s Morton is a lawyer’s lawyer, not so much a political animal as an expert performing a service to the best of their ability. Gimblett has a smoldering sex appeal that connects well with Kerr’s cheeky dignity, so the pair develop their feelings, rather than forge an instant attraction and have an entirely believable chemistry.

All of this wonderful performing takes place on a very detailed set by Owen Gimblett, constructed by Grant Fraser, Gary Bates, Debbie Smith and Chris Dunwell. Timothy Carter’s light design is gently evocative, particularly in the earlier sections of the play when there is rain outside. Michael Schell’s sound is equally true to the narrative, supportive while not being intrusive. Peter Henson’s costumes needed a little more tweaking – but I attended on opening night, and these are the sorts of details that get ironed out. He brings beautiful colours to the set (I must say Henson really knows what colours suit Sonya Kerr) that will be all the more enhanced with some final fitting touches.

All in all, the Genesian production of The Winslow Boy is another joyous night in the Sydney theatre scene.