The story is based on truth: in October 1908, George Archer-Shee, a naval cadet at Osborne, was expelled for the theft of a five shilling postal order from another boy, which he allegedly cashed. His father, who had simply been told by the Admiralty of what they had done, became determined to clear his son’s name. He engaged Edward Carson who used the ancient legal device of a petition of right against the Crown to bring the matter to court and before a jury. On the fourth day of what had become a cause célèbre, the Solicitor General, Sir Rufus Isaacs, abandoned the Crown’s case and accepted the boy’s innocence.

Rattigan adds just the right dramatic touches to this story. The sister is a fervent suffragette . She becomes engaged to marry a dashing army officer although she says that he is less in love with her than she is with him. Naomi Frederick as the sister makes sense of this improbable relationship. The great Henry Goodman is the father, with an iron will to push his son’s cause to the end. He takes on the Admiralty, gets letters written to the newspapers, and instructs the most expensive barrister in the land.

This is not, however, just a story of a family who believes their son: it is the question of the lack of due process which drives it on and leads to a debate in the House of Commons. But there is a heavy price to pay: time and money run out, the father’s health declines, the mother begs him to desist, the elder son has to leave Oxford early to find work, the daughter’s financial settlement unravels and finally her engagement is broken off. Even counsel suffers, turning down the offer of the Lord Chief Justiceship in order to continue with the case. Only Ronnie, the Winslow boy himself, gets on with his life. He even misses the final triumph in court because he has gone to the pictures.

Cause célèbre
The modern resonances are all there: the navy and the government will not back down, the press looks for the “story” but the reporter who comes to the house is bored by the details and prefers talking about the Liberty curtains in the drawing room. The newspapers besiege the family, begging for a statement (“whatever you say will have little bearing on what they write”, they are warned). The public, hungry for a new celebrity to live through, takes up the cause and cheers the verdict, as if they actually knew any of the people involved.

And then there is Sir Robert Morton (Peter Sullivan), the great advocate. He only agrees to take up the case after satisfying himself that the boy is innocent after putting him through one of the greatest cross-examination scenes on stage, a brutal attack on what we would now call a vulnerable witness. He declares that he must dismiss any emotion in favour of “cold clear logic”. And yet when he wins, tears are seen to stream down his face. “It was because right had been done”, he explains to the sister. That is at the core of the play: at the crucial moment, the father leaves it to his daughter to decide whether or not the family continues with the case. Echoing the words of the petition of right she declares, “let right be done”. And so it is. It is a phrase which has stuck in my own mind since I first saw the play, 40 years ago.

One thinks as well about the ironies of the true story. George Archer-Shee won but could not return to Osborne. “When he grows up, he won’t thank you”, the fictional mother warns the fictional father. Archie didn’t grow up. Returning from New York at the outbreak of WWI, he is killed six weeks later, age 19, at the first Battle of Ypres. Rattigan dedicated the play to the 10-year-old Paul Channon, son of his one-time lover, “Chips”. Paul did grow up, to become an MP and a minister, displaying in his career all the political virtues Rattigan argued for in this great play.

The Winslow Boy at the Old Vic Theatre runs until 25 May.

David Wurtzel is the consultant editor of Counsel magazine