Role: Ronnie Winslow
Director: Lindsay Posner
Run: March 8 – May 25, 2012
Running time: 170 minutes
Co-stars: Henry Goodman, Naomi Frederick, Deborah Findlay, Peter Sullivan
Ronnie Winslow, a fourteen-year-old cadet at the Royal Naval College, is accused of the theft of a five-shilling postal order. An internal enquiry, conducted without notice to his family and without benefit of representation, finds him guilty, and his father, Arthur Winslow, is “requested to withdraw” his son from the college (the formula of the day for expulsion). Winslow believes Ronnie’s claim of innocence and, with the help of his suffragette daughter Catherine and his friend and family solicitor Desmond Curry, launches a concerted effort to clear Ronnie’s name. This is no small matter, as under English law, Admiralty decisions were official acts of the government, which could not be sued without its consent—traditionally expressed by the attorney general responding to a petition of right with the formula “Let right be done”.
The Winslows succeed in engaging the most highly sought after barrister in England at the time, Sir Robert Morton, known also as a shrewd opposition Member of Parliament. Catherine had expected Sir Robert to decline the case, or at best to treat it as a political football; instead, he is coolly matter-of-fact about having been persuaded of Ronnie’s innocence by his responses to questioning (in fact, a form of cross-examination, to see how young Ronnie would hold up in court) in the presence of his family, and is shown mustering his political forces in the House of Commons on the Winslows’ behalf with little concern for the cost to his faction. Catherine remains unconvinced of Sir Robert’s sincerity, perhaps not least because of his record of opposition to the cause of women’s suffrage, but also due to his dispassionate manner in the midst of the Winslow family’s financial sacrifices.
The government is strongly disinclined to allow the case to proceed, claiming that it is a distraction from pressing Admiralty business; but in the face of public sympathy garnered through Winslow and Catherine’s efforts, and of Sir Robert’s impassioned speech on the verge of defeat in the Commons, the government yields, and the case is allowed to come to court. At trial, Sir Robert (working together with Desmond Curry and his firm) is able to discredit much of the supposed evidence. The Admiralty, embarrassed and no longer confident of Ronnie’s guilt, abruptly withdraws all charges against him, proclaiming him entirely innocent.
Although the family has won the case at law and lifted the cloud over Ronnie, it has taken its toll on the rest. His father’s physical health has deteriorated under the strain, as to some degree has the happiness of the Winslows’ home. The costs of the suit and the publicity campaign have eaten up his older brother Dickie’s Oxford tuition, and hence his chance at a career in the civil service, as well as Catherine’s marriage settlement. Her fiancé John Watherstone has broken off the engagement in the face of opposition from his father (an Army Colonel), forcing her to consider a sincere and well-intentioned offer of marriage from Desmond, whom she does not love. Sir Robert, on his part, has declined appointment as Lord Chief Justice rather than drop the case. The play ends with a suggestion that romance may yet blossom between Sir Robert and Catherine, who acknowledges that she has misjudged him all along.