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
Theatre Spring 2011
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.
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
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
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.
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Flare Path - Haymarket 2011