Sunday 6 March 2011

Review: Flare Path (Theatre Royal Haymarket)

Trevor Nunn’s season as Artistic Director of the Theatre Royal Haymarket gets under way with a rather spiffing production of Terence Rattigan’s WWII drama Flare Path. The production is one of several Rattigan plays being staged across the UK to mark the centenary of the great playwright’s birth. The classic The Deep Blue Sea is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse (and - even better - is also being filmed by Terence Davies; yes!) while Cause Celebre opens at the Old Vic later this month. First staged in London in 1942, in a production starring Phyllis Calvert, Flare Path isn’t one of Rattigan’s best known works, despite being adapted (and very much transformed) into the delightful film The Way to the Stars in 1945. There’s a sense, perhaps, that the play is too much of a museum piece, one that had something vital to communicate to 1940s audiences but has less to say to us today.

Entering the TRH auditorium to the appealing strains of 1940s ballads and swing music, it's immediately apparent that Nunn and his collaborators are taking a traditional and unironic approach to the material. This turns out to be a virtue, though. Rattigan’s play certainly has its flaws: it’s sometimes creaky in its exposition, schematic and often obvious. But Nunn’s confident production effortlessly draws you in, benefiting from the input of a crack ensemble cast and, ultimately, from the bracing humanity and compassion of a playwright who excels at getting his heroes and heroines into involving emotional binds. The following remarks were written after the first preview of the play on Friday 4th March.

Based in part on Rattigan’s own wartime experiences, the drama takes place in a hotel near an RAF Bomber Command airbase, and focuses upon the interactions of a variety of characters staying at the hotel. There’s Count Skriczevinsky (Mark Dexter), a Polish pilot serving with the RAF and his young English wife Doris (Sheridan Smith); the tail gunner Dusty Miller (Joe Armstrong) and his wife Maudie (Emma Handy) who’s arrived for a short visit; and, most centrally, there’s the love triangle being played out between three characters: the genial, unwitting Flight Lt. Teddy Graham (Harry Hadden-Paton), his actress wife Patricia (Sienna Miller) and her film star lover Peter Kyle (James Purefoy), whose unexpected arrival at the hotel is intended to encourage Patricia into leaving Teddy. Matters come to a head when the men are sent on a night-time raid over Germany from which it seems unlikely that all will return.

Stephen Brimson Lewis's attractive set nicely evokes the hotel lobby/reception area in which all of the action occurs, with nifty projections by Jack James and an understated sound design by Paul Groothius effectively conveying the airfield outside, especially in a pivotal take-off scene. Indeed, the production conjures its place and time with consummate skill, and despite a few longueurs over its 2 hour 45 minute running time, it’s mostly satisfyingly paced, moving through contrasting moods with, dare we say, Chekhovian aplomb. It's often very funny (though perhaps a little too insistent in wringing laughs out of the faltering English of Dexter’s Polish Count), and at times very moving too. Rattigan’s writing is especially good at exploring the dynamics between the RAF and non-RAF characters, and, in particular, their delight at the appearance of a Hollywood star in their midst: there’s a nice running gag about Peter being asked about his acquaintanceship with a variety of film stars.

The reference to Chekhov also feels apt because Flare Path is very much an ensemble piece. Every character, no matter how minor, counts, and, as often, Nunn succeeds at getting his cast to spark off each other in a lively and natural fashion. This is the kind of play in which you come to care more and more about the characters the more you learn about them. Rattigan is often praised as a great writer for women but his male protaginists are drawn with equal insight and the two principal actors here could hardly be bettered. Purefoy is expert as he suggests the doubts and insecurities lurking under the surface of his matinee idol's polished persona, while Harry Hadden-Paton is stunning  as Teddy, stripping away the character’s good-humoured charm in a deeply affecting scene in which his vulnerability and emotional dependency upon Patricia are revealed. In such scenes, Rattigan's writing pierces through the stiff-upper-lippery to create moments of intense poignancy and power.

If there’s a weaker element to the ensemble I’m afraid to report that it’s Sienna Miller. Her performance is adequate, but doesn’t succeed  - yet - in communicating the depths of Patricia’s predicament or in making the most of the massive transition that the character undergoes. Nor do her scenes with Purefoy really crackle; the love story seems somewhat underplayed. At times you almost forget that she’s there: Teddy and Peter might be competing over a void. Miller's lack of presence seems particularly noticeable, perhaps, because the other actors register so vividly. The wonderful Sheridan Smith brings a marvellous warmth and humour to her barmaid-turned-Countess, and her late scene with Purefoy (it involves the translation of a significant letter) is a heartbreaker. Emma Handy is a brilliant mixture of querulousness and stoicism as Maudie, Joe Armstrong is quite delightful as Dusty, and Clive Wood spot-on as the squadron leader Swanson. And as the fussy hotel proprietress Sarah Crowden delivers an absolute gem of a comic performance that channels Joyce Carey by way of Maggie Smith.

In its sentimental endorsement of the necessity of putting aside personal passions for the good of the war effort, there’s no denying that Flare Path is a museum piece in many ways. And yet Nunn’s production feels fresher than you might expect. The play’s “relevance,” I’d argue, lies in making a case for values that have precious little currency in our contemporary culture: self-denial, emotional restraint, duty to the group. Intelligent, assured and full of feeling, this generous-spirited production is a real pleasure, and probably as accomplished a staging of the play as you could ever hope to see.
The production runs for 2 hrs 45 minutes. It's booking until 4th June. Further information here.


  1. I havealways had a soft spot for mr Purefoy!!!

  2. Re: your point about Rattigan's treatment of RAF and non-RAF characters, I thought it was subtly shown how, if you are a man and if you want to be taken seriously, you need to be seen to be useful and participating in the war, frontline or otherwise. Agree with you re: Sienna Miller's performance, and especially so when juxtaposed against James Purefoy's and Harry Hadden-Patton's splendid portrayals of Peter Kyle and Graham respectively.

  3. Yes, I think the play is especially perceptive on those issues. Glad you enjoyed it.