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Flare Path - Theatre Royal Haymarket (review)

James Purefoy (Peter Kyle) and Sienna Miller (Patricia Warren) in Flare Path. Photo credit: Johan Persson.

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

TREVOR Nunn’s revival of Terence Rattigan’s wartime drama Flare Path, which has now opened at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, is part of the playwright’s centenary year celebrations and a fitting tribute to one of England’s most popular 20th-century dramatists.

Based on Rattigan’s own Bomber Command experiences when he served as a tail gunner during the Second World War, Flare Path is set in the autumn of 1941 in the resident’s lounge of the Falcon Hotel, which is situated on the edge of an airfield in Lincolnshire.

Central to the story is the love triangle between Teddy (Harry Hadden-Paton), the young skipper of a Wellington bomber, his actress wife Patricia (Sienna Miller), with whom he is celebrating a reunion, and Peter Kyle (James Purefoy), a famous Hollywood film star, who turns up somewhat unexpectedly.

But they are not alone for there’s The Countess, Doris to her friends (Sheridan Smith) and her Polish husband Flying Officer Count Skriczevinsky (Mark Dexter) as well as Teddy’s tail gunner Sergeant Dusty Miller (Joe Armstrong) and his down-to-earth wife Maudie (Emma Handy). However, their celebrations are short-lived when the boys are assigned an unexpected night-time bombing mission over Germany.

Although Flare Path is first and foremost a drama, it’s cleverly interwoven with moments of pure unadulterated comedy, so it’s never oppresive – emotionally stimulating yes, not least during the heart-stopping and striking take-off sequence. And it’s here that the term flare path, with all its implications, is explained. Which brings me to RAF wartime slang – it’s used extensively within the context of the play and for those of you unfamiliar with the terms, they’re explained in the programme.

But Flare Path is also a story of camaraderie, of fear and bravery, of love in just some of its many forms, of getting things in perspective and, perhaps most importantly, of people acting a part to hide their true feelings and insecurities, something we all do from time to time.

Miller, looking beautiful and elegant in 40’s fashions and completely at home on the stage, turns in a fine performance as a woman torn in two by her passion for Kyle and her ‘duty’ towards her husband. And she has a voice that is a joy to the ear.

However, it’s Smith who truly lights up the stage with her portrayal of Doris, a woman whose ditziness and frivolity not only mask the depth of her love for her husband but also her fears for their long-term future – should he have one. In short, she’s a woman with whom it’s easy to empathise. Moreover, it’s Doris who provides some of Flare Path‘s most deliciously droll moments, all delivered in a delightful Lincolnshire accent.

Purefoy’s Kyle is as smarmy as his slick-backed Brilliantined hair and I was never truly convinced by his protestations of love. But to see him reduced to tears was a humbling experience. Just one thing puzzles me – as a Hollywood actor, I presumed he was American so where was the accent? Hadden-Paton’s Teddy, on the other hand, is an amiable young man, whose gung-ho approach to flying is simply a facade.

There’s also good support from Dexter as the Polish airman whose command of the English language is virtually non-existent; from Armstrong and Handy as a married couple afraid to openly show their love for each other; from Sarah Crowden as dour landlady Mrs Oakes, a woman whose thorny exterior conceals a heart of gold (at least where the young airmen are concerned); and from Matthew Tennyson as her enthusiastic son Percy.

All in all, this is a very fine production and a credit to Nunn in what is the first of a series of productions he’s presenting as Artistic Director of the Theatre Royal Haymarket Company. And with the world’s current volatile situation, Flare Path is as relevant today as it was when it was first staged in 1942. Entertaining and thought-provoking in equal measure, it really shouldn’t be missed.

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Since writing this review, I came across an interview given by James Purefoy, in which he described his character as a “David Niven-esque English film star”, so my apologies for questioning his accent.