Terence Rattigan was the playwright whose plays became redundant overnight, according to legend, with the success of Look Back in Anger in 1956.
But history lends a different perspective and Rattigan’s place in theatre history is secure – a fact wonderfully symbolised by a very different playwright, David Mamet, choosing to direct a film version of this 1946 hit ten years ago.
When you see a production as well-made as this one directed by Stephen Unwin, you might wonder why Rattigan was thought old-hat. It positively hums with quality, with every performance so beautifully honed and integrated into the whole as to reflect great credit on Unwin, as well as his marvellous cast.
Basing the play on a true story, Rattigan chose at the end of the Second World War to show Britain on the brink of the First. The life of the decent Winslow family is shattered when its younger son, Ronnie, is expelled from naval college for allegedly stealing a postal order.
When Arthur Winslow, a retired banker, decides to fight the case, he enlists barrister Sir Robert Morton – to the disgust of his suffragette daughter Catherine, because of his anti-suffrage views. The case becomes a cause celebre in the House of Commons, but not without stress for the family. The question of principle it raises about treatment of the armed forces now has a topical ring.
What a fascinating picture Rattigan paints and what makes it riveting here is the way every detail rings true: that probably really is the latest dance craze circa 1912 Ronnie’s elder brother is practising to the gramophone, and the family solicitor really does look like a Victorian England cricketer turned bore.
Best of all are Timothy West’s performance as Arthur, a kindly, dryly humorous patriarch whose physical decline he subtly conveys, Diane Fletcher as his stoic wife and Claire Cox as the sensible Catherine; not forgetting Adrian Lukis as the oily and aloof Morton.
* Running time: Two hours 40 minutes. Until Saturday.