Writer: Terence Rattigan
Director: Justin Audibert
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
Four years ago Trevor Nunn revived Terence Rattigan’s 1942 wartime drama,Flare Path, in a production that was hailed by many as the definitive staging. Starring Sheridan Smith, that production reinvigorated what had been considered to beone of Rattigan’s more problematic works.
Now, hot on the heels of fellow wartime drama,Birdsong, Original Theatre Company brings a new production of Flare Path to the stage. While never reaching the revelatory heights of Nunn’s vision, it’s an admirable, if flawed, outing for this esteemed, though now slightly creaky, warhorse.
Set in a Lincolnshire Hotel, which doubles as an unofficial Mess and barracks for the nearby airbase, we follow one night and the following day in the lives of airmen and their loved ones. As German bombers target Hull across the Humber, aircrews are getting some R&R after their own counter raids across Germany. There’s tension in the air, with a sense that this night’s revelry may be the last for any of the crew. The odds may be stacked against them, but that doesn’t dampen their spirit.
Their wives, somewhat side-lined as observers into this sealed RAF world, try to provide comfort and support, but the toll on those left behind each night, wondering if their beloved will return, is immense. It is no wonder relationships can unravel.
It’s the relationships that Rattigan explores more than the wartime morals. Given its authorship during the war, there is, not surprisingly, a feel of propaganda about the war effort, fuelled by Rattigan’s own experience as aircrew, but it is on the personal level that he feels more relaxed in exploration.
The script may be flawed, and, despite the timeliness of the revival given the current resurgence in wartime history interest; Justin Audibert’s production never fully convinces this is a play worth reviving.
Having said that, Audibert’s production delivers much. His focus on the personal impact is a sensible route, drawing out some nicely drawn characterisation from his 12-piece cast. Original Theatre’s Artistic Director, Alastair Whatley, gives an impressive turn as Flight Lieutenant Graham, haunted by the pressure of having to skipper endless raids, unable to share with his wife the horrors he’s seen.
Philip Franks’ Squadron Leader ‘Gloria’ Swanson is a joy to watch, a man torn between duty and a sense of pastoral care for the aircrew under his watch while Stephanie Jacob’s hotel keeper, Mrs Oakes, is as formidable a proprietor as Sybil Fawlty ever was.
Less convincing is the chemistry between Leon Ockenden and Olivia Hallinan’s love entangled film actors Peter and Patricia. Hallinan gives a hint at the tragic choices Patricia faces between the man she loves and the man she feels a duty towards, but there’s never enough spark between the pair for us to fully believe the passion that lurks beneath the stiff upper lips. Their pivotal relationship is more akin to a Noel Coward comedy than a wartime drama.
The highlight of the evening, however, belongs to Siobhan O’Kelly as barmaid turned Polish Countess Skriczevinsky. O’Kelly’s richly drawn portrayal is both multi-layered and instantly accessible. Her brash bravado a mask for the real fear she faces at the thought of the loss of her husband. As she hears her husband’s farewell letter falteringly translated from French to English, the pain and grief is palpable in a silenced auditorium.
Hayley Grindle’s design cleverly incorporates the titular flare paths into its flooring; however, the overall feel is one of any countless period drawing room settings than a wartime hotel. There are always challenges adapting sets for touring venues but, with a pivotal staircase missing from the Ipswich stage, and sightlines causing some viewing issues,it’s not a comfortable fit onto the New Wolsey stage. While Dominic Bilkey’s sound design treats us to the guttural roars of the Merlin engines, there’s a feeling that being encouraged to look into the non-existent shadows of the planes on the moonlit backdrop is a wasted opportunity.
Seventy-three years on and some of the parts of Rattigan’s plane may now struggle to take flight but, while this production never fully repairs those flaws, it does give a glimpse into the humanity behind the brave souls who faced the unknown, night after night during the Second World War.
Runs until 24 October 2015 and continues to tour | Image:Jack Ladenburg