“I always thought our private happiness was more important than outside things”
Flare Path marks the second of 3 Rattigan plays this month for me as his anniversary year really gets into swing with two major London productions opening this month, joining the fringe and regional shows that have already begun to celebrate the work of this most English of writers. It also marks the first production of Trevor Nunn’s artistic directorship at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Written in 1941 it is drawn from Rattigan’s own RAF experience in the Second World War
Set over a 1942 weekend in a hotel occupied by fighter pilots and their visiting wives, near an airbase in Lincolnshire, the story centres on Patricia, an actress who although she has married the affably handsome Flight Lieutenant Teddy after a whirlwind romance, has been tempted back by her former lover, film star Peter Kyle and she intends to tell Teddy of her intent to leave him. But the war waits for no woman and as Teddy serves his country alongside his fellow men and she is left waiting with the other wives, all struggling with the different pressures the war is placing on their own marriages, Patricia’s resolve is weakened and the her dilemma becomes more pressing.
As a portrayal of the effects of war on personal relationships, Flare Path is an extremely persuasive piece of theatre and though the casting might suggest it is more of a star vehicle, its power lies in the strength of the ensemble, both in the writing and in the performances here. Indeed with their emotional repression, the leads aren’t particularly likeable characters: Patricia is toying with the hearts of two men and Peter refuses to do his bit to cheer up the boys or even participate in the conviviality of keeping spirits up in the hotel either. James Purefoy plays the awkward selfishness well, finally unable to keep his feelings repressed and I have to say I was impressed with Sienna Miller. She is someone, like Kiera Knightley, who seems to attract unreasonable amounts of opprobrium yet when I saw her in As You Like It a few years back, she certainly did not disgrace herself and likewise here, I enjoyed her subtle work here as a woman caught between desire and duty. The final scene as she finally makes her decision is just beautifully played and extremely moving as there’s finally a slow settling of the torment inside her. As the third side of the triangle, Harry Hadden-Paton really shines though as the doting husband, trying his best to be an excellent leader of men, a paragon of bonhomie but dangerously concealing his own private vulnerabilities with a wonderfully appealing performance.
Rattigan balances this emotional conflict, full of the repressed Englishness that one is coming to realise typifies much of his style, with a sub-plot or rather a key supporting player who pretty much steals the show in Sheridan Smith’s Doris, a Lincolnshire barmaid who is now officially a countess. She is married to the Polish Count Skriczevinsky, a bombastic turn by Mark Dexter as a daredevil pilot who lost his family to the Nazis but has found a new love here and Smith is just wonderful at playing the light comedy of being starstruck by the Hollywood actor in their midst which turns into the heartbreaking concern, waiting for her husband to return from a mission, unsure of the true depths of his feelings for her. Conversely, these are people who do say what they feel, they just find it much more difficult to understand each other, making the eventual comprehension, through a revelatory letter reading, an utterly gorgeous moment and the emotional honesty in both of them makes this a more gripping story than the central triangle in the end.
But it really is an ensemble piece with everyone firing on all cylinders. Whether it’s the matter-of-factness between tail-gunner Dusty and fretful wife Maudie, all too used to the strains that war is putting on their marriage yet movingly portrayed by Joe Armstrong and Emma Handy, the broader comedic stylings of Sarah Crowden’s prim hotelier Mrs Oakes and her waiter son Percy, played with a gangling good-natured enthusiasm by Matthew Tennyson who provides a quietly beautiful moment about the power of faith with Smith’s Doris or Clive Wood’s bumptious squadron leader. Everyone plays their part to perfection in creating a wide collage of genuine emotion that keeps one involved in the fate of every character.
Trevor Nunn has come up with a resounding success here, the wonderful atmosphere rising effectively even up to the third row of the upper circle, from where the view of the little-used but effective film work for the taking-off of the planes was excellent. Never less than gripping, despite being entirely set in the one room, Flare Path is deeply moving, powerful stuff combining unashamed sentiment with devastating emotion. And although she’s already popular, as her Best Actress wins at the Oliviers and Whats on Stage awards attests, I think we’re seeing the signs of Sheridan Smith making steps towards becoming a national treasure.
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes
Programme cost: £4
Booking until 4th June
Note: take tissues!