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Flare Path Review Theatre Royal Haymarket

Flare PathFlare Path Written by Terrence Rattigan

Flare Path continues the centenary celebrations of Terrence Rattigan with Trevor Nunn’s super revival of his 1942 Second World War drama.

Flare Path was from a different era and it is worth considering the time and place that led to the creation of the play in order that you can fully grasp the drama that is depicted.

Terrence Rattigan was born in South Kensington in 1911 and was educated at Sandroyd School in Cobham, Surrey and Harrow School, North-West London. He subsequently went to Trinity College at the University of Oxford.

In 1936 at the age of 25 Rattigan wrote the very successful play French Without Tears, which led to him becoming the most celebrated young playwright in London. At that time, it had a run of 1030 performances. In June 1939, the follow-up, After the Dance, also opened to favourable reviews. Rattigan then developed what is commonly termed ‘writers block’, which got so bad that it led him to seek advice from a psychiatrist, who advised him to join the RAF, which with much needed discipline might help him write again.

With the Second World War now blighting most of Europe, it was no surprise that Rattigan followed the advice. He joined the RAF in 1940 and chose to become a tail-gunner, which is said to be one of the most dangerous positions in the RAF. During 1940-41, the various ‘sorties’ that Rattigan experienced helped to inspire him to once again write, and in particular write from his own experiences and those around him.
The play Flare Path was written during November to December 1941.

Flare Path opened at the Apollo Theatre on 13th August, 1942 when Europe was a bloody and scarred battlefield and by which time Rattigan had been promoted to the rank of Flying Officer.  The play which at that time had a run of 670 performances is set in typical Rattigan style in demonstrating the British way of understated emotion.

In the current production, it is fair to say that any one of the leading cast members could be described as the box-office draw, but Trevor Nunn’s revival of Terence Rattigan’s 1942 play is largely successful due to several strong performances. This is especially appropriate as the play is a tribute to the collective spirit of wartime bomber crews and their partners. Given that the play was written during war-time and with views from Rattigan’s personal experiences, it is understandable that the play focuses on a small group of people at war. There is no debate about the moral issues of the bombing.

‘As the Wellington bombers roar off along the flare path that lights their way, no one can be sure which of the pilots will ever be coming back’

The play is set in a Lincolnshire hotel lounge in the autumn of 1941 where the RAF pilots and crews hang out before and after their raids on German territory, and on this particular evening their wives are also present. The hotel is run in a typically austere manner by Mrs Oakes played commendably by Sarah Crowden.

The lives of not long married RAF bomber pilot Flight Lieutenant Graham (Teddy) superbly played by Harry Hadden-Paton and his actress wife Patricia, elegantly portrayed by Sienna Miller, are thrown into upheaval by an unexpected night mission and the arrival of Peter Kyle, an aging Hollywood star. Kyle is stylishly performed by James Purefoy, who brings about a conflict of love and duty for Patricia.

Kyle has turned up at the hotel in the hope of reclaiming the love of his life, the recently married Patricia. She, however, is faced with a conflict. Who needs her more? Where does her heart really belong, Kyle or her pilot husband, Teddy, whose light-hearted manner conceals his shattered nerves. The private drama between Kyle and Patricia is played out against the background of a bombing raid which is “not exactly a piece of cake”.

With the return of the flight crew never certain and with Patricia’s heart in turmoil, Rattigan uses a personal dilemma as a way of exploring the group ethos.

Also in the hotel are Countess Skriczevinsky (Doris), played by Sheridan Smith and her husband Flying Officer Count Skriczevinsky (Johnny) played by Mark Dexter. Both of these characters were brilliantly played, and for me were very much in the collective of stars of the show. Dexter adds some humour to the play with his portrayal of a Polish pilot, who struggles manfully and humorously with his attempt at the English language. Sheridan Smith takes to her role with relative ease, managing to play her role of ‘ex-barmaid – but now countess’ with considerable stature. She has the natural ability to ‘make contact’ with the audience while remaining in character, which was perhaps easier to achieve as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, although still attained in Flare Path.

Making up the main characters of the RAF flight crew at the hotel are Tail-Gunner Sergeant Miller (Dusty) who was solidly performed by Joe Armstrong, and together with his wife Mrs Maudie Miller played by the excellent Emma Hand, demonstrated the image of a typical working class married couple of that time. The simple exchange of goodbyes between the tail-gunner and his wife, as he leaves for a raid typifies Rattigan’s style.

Rattigan’s plays illustrate the English vice of emotional containment and understatement, but he also understood its dramatic power. As the men fly off to face possible death, Doris says to Patricia: “This is the first time you’ve been here for a do, isn’t it?”  Clive Wood who captured the role of Squadron Leader (Gloria) Swanson brilliantly, uses one of the few overtly patriotic lines in the play, saying: “My God, we do owe these boys something, you know.”

All of the performances are first-rate. Sienna Miller looks suitably strained and tense as the agonised Patricia, while James Purefoy admirably conveys the sense of exclusion felt by being caught up in wartime action, in which he takes no part. Sheridan Smith and Mark Dexter make an unlikely couple, but the dynamics of their relationship and their own drama add to the roller-coaster of emotions that is Flare Path.

Harry Hadden-Paton is first class in portraying his role, which does at times require him to outwardly show an extreme and dramatic emotional state.

The cast are strongly supported by Jim Creighton as Corporal Jones and Matthew Tennnyson as Percy, together with Richard Beanland, Kate Colebrook and Ian Shepherd.

Flare Path represents a different era, and to his credit Rattigan seems to have captured what is historically portrayed as being the essence of the British people during the 2nd World War. During January 1943, Prime Minister Winston Churchill attended a performance of the play and was quoted as saying: “I was very moved by the play. It is a masterpiece of understatement. But we are rather good at that, aren’t we.”

If you want to step back in time and take a glimpse of what it was like for some people during a very difficult period of time then go and experience the style of Rattigan.

Review by Neil Cheesman

30th March 2011

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