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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Flare Path
Haymarket Theatre   Spring 2011

Terrence 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.

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 to 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 losing her husband.

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 ashamed 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 before.

The scene is frequently stolen by Sheridan Smith's Countess, whose surface jolliness is gradually revealed to have real depth and grit beneath it.

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.

Gerald Berkowitz


Review - Flare Path - Haymarket 2011
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