Ambiguity and postal orders: The Winslow Boy

The Winslow Boy, currently playing at The Old Vic, is a lovely piece of entertainment about how a middle class family in Edwardian England risks everything to see that a mild injustice is overcome. But it is somewhat hard to sustain interest in its near three hour length when the characters are only defined by how they relate in society and legal arguments relate to a particularly obscure piece of Victorian law...

The play tells the story of Ronnie Winslow, a fourteen year old Navy cadet who is accused of stealing a five shilling postal order. Without given the opportunity for representation, he is investigated and found guilty and his family is asked to withdraw him from the Royal Navy College. At the time there was no automatic right of appeal and so the play follows the attempts of the family to clear his name and the toll it takes upon them all.

At the heart of the play is how difficult it is for individuals up against the establishment to challenge and seek redress to right a wrong, without money and the right connections. Perhaps a more interesting play would explore how members of the establishment conspire against individuals through convenience, corruption or incompetence (perhaps the modern day equivalent of stealing a five shilling postal order is to be accused of shouting f*** off plebs). The limitations of a piece set entirely in a family living room means that much of the drama has to be explained rather than observed. While no doubt a clever theatrical device having characters say throughout the piece lines such as, "I must tell you this in the living room and not in the hall," it becomes very repetitive.

Still despite these drawbacks, the performances are good. While Henry Goodman did not strike me as a man who instilled fear into his family (he seems much too nice about taking away his son's education),  others in the cast fared much better. This includes Charlie Rowe as the young boy who constantly protests that he did nothing wrong, and spends what seems to be an entire act asleep on the sofa (lovingly recreated in the production photos on the right). Possibly Naomi Frederick as Catherine the older sister comes off best, particularly as she comes across as the voice of the play.

By the end of the piece it is tempting to wonder whether it was worth it - for both the family and the audience. But no doubt part of the ambiguity is part of its charm for some... It runs through to the end of May...Post show musings with @Johnnyfoxlondon follow...

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