Rattigan's wartime play flirts openly with melodrama and soap opera,
but the playwright's technical mastery and emotional honesty, and the
quiet power of Trevor Nunn's production, carry it through any dangers
to a thoroughly satisfying drama.
Haymarket Theatre Spring 2011
Rattigan's lifelong concern was with British emotional reticence and
repression, the 'stiff upper lip' syndrome that left its adherents
unable to cope with real emotion when they experienced it. His own
experience in the RAF let him see and explore an even deeper level of
emotional denial, in the cheerful trivialising of their adventures that
fliers adopted, not out of macho swagger, but to protect themselves
from their real and totally legitimate fears.
And so Flare Path is peopled by characters who not only repress their
emotions, but actively hide from them, and the true drama lies in the
moments at which their defences threaten to fail them.
The setting is a hotel near an RAF base, where fliers' wives live,
listening each night for the sound of their husbands' planes returning
from dangerous bombing raids. One pilot is married to an actress who is
still in love with her former lover, a film star who has come here to
take her away. (This central plot is the weakest element in Flare Path,
and you have to push past the cliché of a romantic triangle
open yourself to the play's real power.)
Also present are a cheery barmaid who impulsively married a Polish
flier and found herself the Countess of Someplace, and a tailgunner's
wife who's more concerned about missing a bus than possibly
In the course of a particularly scary night fears will be faced openly
for the first time, loves will be tested and life choices will be made.
And it will not just be nostalgia or knee-jerk respect for the wartime
generation, but rather the skill of playwright, director and actors,
that make it all real and deeply moving.
Not least of the play's pleasures is the growing realisation of how
essential the airmen's frivolity is to their sanity, and how, for
example, that seemingly self-absorbed gunner's wife has been carefully
and lovingly protected from reality by her husband.
And it is noteworthy that the plot ultimately turns on two open
expressions of feelings, one by a deeply embarrassed and
Englishman, and the other, absent those pains, by the Pole.
Rattigan demands extreme subtlety and sensitivity from his actors,
since they are playing characters either not in touch with their
emotions or deliberately trying not to express them.
So James Purefoy as the actor shows us a man who, even when he is being
sincere, is always aware of his best profile and always using - and
hiding behind - his craft, while Harry Hadden-Paton as the pilot
demonstrates the extra burden of a man for whom admitting fear is even
worse than feeling it, because he feels it's his moral obligation to
act brave and unconcerned before his men.
As the woman caught between them, Sienna Miller pushes through the soap
opera by convincing us that one who has always treated emotions lightly
is now facing and acknowledging feelings deeper than she's known
The scene is frequently stolen by Sheridan Smith's Countess, whose
surface jolliness is gradually revealed to have real depth and grit
As well as guiding his actors to such quietly and consistently real
performances, Trevor Nunn never loses sight of the obligation to play
this near-melodrama absolutely straight, trusting his playwright the
way the bomber crew trusts their pilot.
Review - Flare Path - Haymarket 2011