“Flare Path” opened in London in August 1942; it had a successful run but until Trevor Nunn’s revival in 2011 as part of the Terence Rattigan centenary celebrations it has rarely been seen since in professional theatre. A new production by The Original Theatre Company and Birdsong Productions is now on tour – this week at Richmond Theatre.
“Flare Path” has to be seen in the context of the times in which it was written and first staged. Just a month earlier Winston Churchill had received a strong challenge in Parliament over his conduct of the War. It was not only the Prime Minister’s morale that had been low but the nation’s as a whole after the fall of Singapore, Rommel’s success against the British Army in Libya and losses of confidence by some in the Cabinet and a significant minority of the House of Commons. The response of the artistic community was patriotic. Noel Coward’s “In Which We Serve” (also 1942) was positively reviewed in the New York Times which said that it “vividly and movingly conveyed in terms of human emotion the cruel realities of this present war.” And Coward’s rival (as some saw him) Terence Rattigan wrote “Flare Path” as a similarly, if less overtly patriotic, contribution to the war effort.
There is little flag-waving or bombast in “Flare Path” but it is clearly designed to boost morale both in respect of the plot developments, and the characters and language. Here we are in the familiar world of Middle Class reticence especially in the relationship between the married actress “Patricia Graham” and her lover the film actor “Peter Kyle”. There is a “Brief Encounter” element to this affair – will she choose passion, but infidelity or duty and loyalty? That her husband is a bomber pilot daily risking his life adds to the sharpness of the choice. Much of the language is deliberately formal “You were a fool to let me go”, “We all act in a way”, “A nice girl wouldn’t have had anything to do with me”, “You’re always thinking of an invisible audience”, “You’ll never know how much I miss you” and so on. The biggest response of the night at Richmond came when the line “We’ve got to win the war” was met by “How Daily Mail”. Plus ça change!
The 1942 nature of the language has to be matched by a 1942 presentation of it. Director Justin Audibert clearly saw this and that the at times quite stylised and non-realistic speech is the only way to do the play. It is a moment frozen in time with the stresses of war, of relationships, of privation and the sheer awfulness of knowing that for every bombing mission there was a 50% risk that the aircraft and its crew would not return safely. There is some gallows humour and plenty of RAF slang and jargon.
Whilst I don’t want to commit the sin of giving a spoiler you can perhaps understand that the “happy ending” was not really a surprise. Rattigan didn’t want, in August 1942, his audience leaving the theatre in gloom. The play’s situation is authentic (Rattigan himself was in the RAF) although to have quite such a number of parallel tense plot lines is of course poetic licence. But the tension is real and there are a few twists in the story to keep us happy! The cast is excellent with Adam Best’s Polish pilot and Olivia Hallinan’s Patricia particularly good. The set and costumes were also excellent and the production moves at a good pace. In less skilled hands “Flare Path” could descend into parody. Round the Horne’s Dame Celia Molestrangler, and Binkie Huckaback lie in wait for Patricia and Peter if they are not careful! Fortunately there is not a hint of this in this very good production!
Review by Paddy Briggs
Against a backdrop of heartache and quiet bravery, Rattigan weaves a classic love story between RAF pilot Teddy celebrating a reunion at a Lincolnshire hotel with his actress wife Patricia which is tested the limits by the surprise arrival of Patricia’s ex-lover and Hollywood idol Peter Kyle. An unexpected and dangerous mission over Germany puts Patricia at the centre of an emotional conflict as unpredictable as the war in the skies.
Flare Path combines highly charged drama with a truly authentic taste of the fear, camaraderie and passion experienced by the men and women who fought to save their country, their families and each other. This brand new production will be directed by rising star Justin Audibert (RSC, Young Vic, West Yorkshire Playhouse) and stars Leon Ockenden (Mr Selfridge), Olivia Hallinan (Lark Rise to Candleford) Philip Franks (Heartbeat) and Alastair Whately (Birdsong) This major revival comes from the producers behind the hit touring production of Birdsong.
Flare Path Trailer 2015
Flare Path: The full cast, headed by the previously announced Leon Ockenden as Peter Kyle, Olivia Hallinan as Patricia Graham and Philip Franks as Squadron Leader Swanson. Joined by Adam Best as Flying Officer Count Skriczevinsky, James Cooney as Percy, Simon Darwen as Sergeant Miller (Dusty), Stephanie Jacob as Mrs Oakes, Shvorne Marks as Mrs Miller (Maudie), Siobhan O’Kelly as Countess Skriczevinsky (Doris), William Reay as Corporal Jones (Wiggy), Holly Smith as Maid and Alastair Whatley as Flight Lieutenant Graham (Teddy).
Based on Rattigan’s experiences as a tail gunner during World War II, FLARE PATH paints an evocative portrait of life in wartime Britain for the life-and-death existence of the RAF bomber crews, and their wives and sweethearts who were left waiting their return.
Set in 1942 against a backdrop of heartache and quiet bravery, FLARE PATH tells the story of former actress Patricia, the wife of RAF pilot Teddy, whose marriage is tested to the limits by the surprise arrival of Patricia’s ex‐lover and Hollywood idol Peter Kyle. An unexpected and dangerous mission over Germany puts Patricia at the centre of an emotional conflict as unpredictable as the war in the skies.
FLARE PATH combines highly charged drama with a truly authentic taste of the fear, camaraderie and passion experienced by the men and women who fought to save their country, their families and each other.
FLARE PATH is directed by Justin Audibert. Set and Costume Design by Hayley Grindle, Lighting Design by Alex Wardle and Sound Design by Dominic Bilkey.
FLARE PATH is produced on tour by Alastair Whatley for The Original Theatre Company and Anne-Marie Woodley and Jon Woodley for Birdsong Productions Ltd.
Official website: www.flarepaththetour.com
Twitter: @flarepathtour Facebook: @flarepaththetour