The Endangered Species Project has announced their first Terence Rattigan play: The Winslow Boy, from 1946, a masterfully-constructed work that is also a totally engaging emotional experience. The play is a fictional version of an actual court case which had occurred three years before Rattigan was born: The Arche-Shee family had sued the British Admiralty for a false accusation of theft lodged against their naval cadet son, leading to a political sensation. Rattigan changed much of the circumstances of the actual case, but in the character of Sir Robert Morton he kept many of the attributes of the barrister who led the original charge, Sir Edward Carson: a thoroughgoing conservative - one of the prosecutors of Oscar Wilde - who, against expectation, agreed to take on the Admiralty.
The Winslow Boy is notable as a courtroom drama which does not set foot in a courtroom; the effects of the case on the entire Winslow family over two years are charted instead. Mr Winslow spends most of his modest savings in the defense of his youngest child, and his health suffers, too. Catherine, the eldest child, who is active in the Women's Suffrage movement, sees her engagement threatened, and increasingly disagrees with the way the case is being led. Dickie, the middle child loses his place at Oxford to the costs of the case. Mrs. Winslow begins to question just what kind of man her husband is. All this is seriously and carefully drawn, but the play is often funny, filled with suspense, and there's not a single role which doesn't offer an actor, and an audience, a deliciously dramatic time.
Terence Rattigan - whose centenary year just passed - was a titan of British theatre in the 20th century. The Winslow Boy is arguably one of his three most famous plays, the others being The Browning Version and Separate Tables. As a young man, he studied History at Oxford, but after a modest success with a co-written play, he dropped out of college to write as a career. His father, a diplomatist, disapproved of his son's theatrical aspirations, but grudgingly agreed to fund him for a couple of years while he tried to make a living writing plays. These two years produced several unproduced plays, and one that flopped spectacularly. He was plugging away at screenplays for the British arm of Warner Brothers when, almost desultorily, success struck. In 1936, a producer wanted a small-cast play (well, small-cast for those days - 10 actors) for a theatre that had unexpectedly gone empty. Rattigan submitted one of the pieces he had written at home, and the result was French Without Tears: rapturously reviewed, a spectacular hit, it played more than a thousand performances.
For the next ten years Rattigan was very successful with several romantic comedies, though, yearning to be taken seriously, he mistimed a devastating indictment of the aging Bright Young Things in his brilliant After the Dance, which opened just as the war with Germany began to roil; it closed early - the public was not in the mood for a caustic tragedy. In 1946, again quite seriously, he wrote The Winslow Boy.
ESP is a confederation of Seattle theatre artists dedicated to presenting plays that seldom get full productions. In the present economic straits in which regional theatre now finds itself, much of the so-called established international repertoire is neglected, for various reasons: there are too many different settings, or the casts are too large, or, simply, the publicity requirements of selling a play that is both "old" and unfamiliar to general audiences may seem too daunting.