Directed by Trevor Nunn
“I was very moved by this play. It is a masterpiece of understatement. But we are rather good at that, aren’t we?” Winston Churchill said to the cast of the original production of Flare Path on a winter’s night in January 1943. Britain was still reeling from the Blitz and the Battle of Britain, and the German forces were at their zenith. In many ways, early 1943 was Britain’s darkest hour. Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path, set at this time, is a play which resonates strongly, perhaps even more so today than when it was first written, with the feeling of pride which surrounds ‘the Few’. It does so with a certain honesty, a truthfulness which makes the script even more powerful. This is almost certainly due to the fact that Terence Rattigan wrote this play whilst he was an Air Gunner for the RAF, and that he authored it as a tribute to the bravery of his colleagues.
So what of this revival? The script is powerful, moving, and at times funny – but has something been lost nearly seventy years down the line? I am not usually one to go for overly patriotic movies or war novels, but even so I could not help but think that Flare Path is an important story to be told. Not only does it remind us of the huge sacrifices that were made during World War II, but it also gets right to the heart of what allowed Britain to persevere and ultimately triumph: the sacrificing of personal interests and the incredible strength and power of the family. This could easily have been overdone, but Sir Trevor Nunn’s production avoids ramming brash patriotism down your throat, and instead presents this more understated human side to the story. And this is no easy feat.
Performance-wise, the show has an overall outstanding cast with Sienna Miller, playing the protagonist, Mrs Patricia Graham, being by far the most famous name on the cast list. Miller delivers a competent performance, which is in places excellent, but in other places not quite believable. The areas where she struggles slightly are the intense, emotional scenes, which are undoubtedly extremely challenging. The stand out performance of the evening comes from the far less famous Harry Hadden-Paton as emotionally reserved Teddy Graham, a pilot of a Wellington-class bomber. Although he seemed to go overboard (no pun intended) with his performance at times, he provides a personification of the phrase ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ which is incredibly moving: here was a man whose over the top sense of humour and manic enthusiasm are used to mask the terrible emotional burden of being one of ‘the Few’. Hadden-Paton’s performance is funny, intelligent and deeply moving, a real driving force for the production. Other excellent performances came from Sheridan Smith as the wife of a Polish Count (played outstandingly by Mark Dexter), and James Purefoy as the actor and personified ‘enemy’ Peter Kyle who attempts to persuade Mrs Graham to elope with him. Clive Wood also provides a brilliant performance as Squadron Leader Swanson.
The set is simple yet effective: a box-set room depicting the foyer of a hotel where the RAF crew’s wives are staying. Naturalistic and understated, it is meant to provide a setting for the action, not distract from it, and it does so very well. Technically, the big success is the projection, designed by Jack James and used to show the takeoff of the Wellington bombers for a high-risk ‘do’. In a scene which has the audience glued to the edge of their seats, James’ projections, coupled with the deafening roar of engines create a heart-wrenchingly tense atmosphere. Done wrong, this effect could have come across as tacky, but instead it completely envelops the audience. Hats off to the design team for this.
Overall, Flare Path is undoubtedly an excellent show, with some very strong performances. Furthermore, it is an important story to tell, especially now, in an age where it is all too easy to forget the horrors of World War II, and the effect it had on the families of Britain. This revival is an excellent one, and a welcomed part of the Terence Rattigan centenary celebrations.
Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section below!
Flare Path runs at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 11th June 2011.