Written in 1941, and directed here by the much-lauded Trevor Nunn, Terence Rattigan’s wartime tale Flare Path successfully delves beyond initially grand impressions to examine the human details crouching timidly behind. Slightly clumsy at times, but frequently touching, and with a few standout turns, this is the superior offering of the two Rattigan works currently showing in London to mark the playwright’s centenary (Cause Celèbre, starring Anne-Marie Duff, is the other – see my review here).
Against the devastating backdrop of the Second World War and the awe-inspiring spectacle of RAF bomber late-night raids, Rattigan’s characters are shown to be funny and warm, as well as petty, rural, frail, vulnerable and frightened, largely gaining the audience’s affection to help present a human context of one of history’s most dreadful conflicts.
With a gravity and sympathy helped enormously by today’s modern sense of nostalgia and respect for the period surrounding World War Two, Flare Path tells the story of a group of fighter pilots, who, stationed in the Falcon Hotel in Lincolnshire, periodically go out on ever-more perilous night-time raids, using the hazardous ‘flare path’ lights to guide their planes, while their other halves try not to worry themselves sleepless as they wait for the men to return. One woman, Patricia, wife of the bomber pilot Teddy, finds herself uncomfortably wedged between her husband (Harry Hadden-Paton), almost a stranger to her, and her ex-lover, Peter Kyle, a famous film actor (James Purefoy) whose fading star has brought him to England to plead for the relationship’s rekindling.
Sheridan Smith takes the stage
The story begins slowly, easing the audience into the comfortable bosom of a country hotel reception, in which nearly all the scenes take place. Despite the sniping of the hotel landlady, played bafflingly and sadly unamusingly by Sarah Crowden, the atmosphere is relaxed, if slightly staid, with characters largely at ease with each other, suggesting an easy familiarity despite the constant threat of danger from the skies. The set is modest and feels endearingly worn, with easy chairs, a fireplace and dark panelled staircase cradling the characters from the dark-streaked world outside, which, while not exactly forbidden, is never shown, giving the feeling of a homely shelter bracing against an outside danger. Even Sergeant Miller’s parochial wife Maudie (convincingly played by Emma Handy), who has eventually managed to arrive for one night and is desperate to catch her bus home so she doesn’t miss work tomorrow, can’t quite leave on time, drawn again and again to the chairs by the fireplace to matter-of-factly discuss the changes the war has wreaked on everyone’s lives. The door leading to the hotel bar, from which the deliciously indiscreet landlady’s young son emerges periodically as bartender, adds a sparkle of comic relief.
Almost straight away, Doris, played by Sheridan Smith, is the delight of the entire production. Sweet, genuine and hilarious, with a pleasingly authentic accent, Smith expertly peels back the character’s chirpy exterior to reveal a vulnerable woman, whose recently-acquired countess status is at odds with her latent fear that her Polish count husband will leave her once the war is over. When the news comes that he is missing in action, presumed dead, her quiet reflection as his final letter is translated to her (which reveals that he had intended to take her back to Poland all along) reverberates to the back of the theatre, and the quality of Smith’s acting never wavers as her character touchingly attempts to come to terms with the tragedy. It’s with palpable joy that the audience welcomes the hapless, but very much alive, Count Skriczevinsky (Mark Dexter) back through the door, whose broken English spluttering and halting explanations of his experiences are wonderfully delivered to real laughter from all present.
Such chemistry and believable emotion is not, sadly, achieved by all actors in Flare Path. Arguably the largest audience draw in terms of star cast members, Sienna Miller is oddly wooden in the role of Pat. I wanted to give Miller, who is regularly hammered by tabloids gleeful of her real-life romantic faux-pas (but who I liked in films such as 2008’s The Edge of Love) the benefit of the doubt, and was prepared to enjoy her portrayal of a glamorous forties wife pining for a simple resolution of a complicated love-triangle amid the stress of war. Unfortunately, I was not rewarded.
During the scenes with the also-lacklustre Purefoy, playing as she is a nervous and conflicted lover, her curiously detached manner could be forgiven as characterisation, but it falls boringly flat during supposedly ground-breaking moments with her on-stage husband. The scene in which he falls at her feet to reveal how scared he was during the most recent raid, is over-emotional and over-dramatic, and instead of providing the intended (one assumes) zenith of the play’s juxtaposition between public bravery and inner turmoil, it just left me slightly embarrassed. I felt the gravity of Rattigan’s scene despite, not because of, the histrionics from Hadden-Paton and unconvincing reactions from Miller.
Frankly, the supposedly-tense decision Patricia has to make about whether to leave her husband bored me. It was an aside to the much more compelling pilots’ stories, which I feel suffered because of the time given over to this clumsy love dilemma. The funny and charming Squadron Leader Swanson, affectionately nicknamed Gloria by Teddy, (and played by the very engaging Ivan Samson) is sadly glossed over amid the agitation. Whether this was an intentional focus from Rattigan to heighten Teddy’s vulnerability, I’m not sure, but I certainly feel that Miller, Purefoy and Haddon-Paton’s parts could have been played with much more sensitivity and restraint.
‘An uplifting take on heart-rending history’
Despite such lacunas, however, the play still delivers a strong message, and the final scene, which sees the curtain go down on the near-full cast rowdily singing along to a rude wartime rhyme, left me with an uplifting sense of proud nostalgia and history, as the darker and more poignant side to the story was still ringing in my ears. The real star of the show, though, apart from the glorious Smith, must be the projected film of the bomber jets taking off. Through a usually-opaque window, the flare path is conspicuously lit up in the darkness, paradoxically endangering, we are told, the lives of the pilots, who need the lights to show them the way but in using them alert enemy German bombers to their presence. The otherwise silent show of all planes taking off over the hotel, cleverly projected on to a screen above the main stage while the characters watch from the window, resonates with the grumble of engine noise and the heart-wrenching possibility that the pilots may not come back. Such even-handed direction of easily the most intense scene in the entire play brought tears to my eyes and eloquently emphasised just how well Rattigan contrasts the drama of significant events with the intimacy of human relationships.
To truly blow me away, the play would have needed less hysteria from certain characters, and a more concerted effort to follow through some of Rattigan’s intentions to their dramatic conclusions (the point of the landlady, for example, was never made clear to an uninitiated audience member like me). But the quiet emotion from some, coupled with the heightened hilarity from others, a strong set and willingness to countenance much-needed silence and realistic awkwardness on stage (so often overlooked in other productions), made Flare Path an extremely enjoyable experience, which I would happily recommend to any theatregoer looking for a thought-provoking, emotional but ultimately uplifting take on one of the country’s most heart-rending, and seemingly still-relevant, periods of history.
4 out of 5 stars
Flare Path is playing at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket on an extended run until 11th June 2011