Flare Path, Theatre Royal Haymarket, London’s West End, March 2011

“Don’t worry, skipper will get us home again . . . and you have to pretend you’re not afraid”, so speaks the tail gunner, a role that Terence Rattigan himself played for real in World War II. This play is based on his own experience, and gives a fine understanding of the tensions that the bomber crews were up against. It’s a representation of how ordinary folk could rise to heights of selflessness while retaining their sense of humour until . . . well, until they die or perhaps just snap. Its guiding theme is understatement, well counterbalanced by the arrival of an ex-pat from America, a famous actor named Peter Kyle.

James Purefoy and Sienna Miller

The women portrayed their roles superbly. Sienna Miller was wonderfully natural as the actress and wife of Flight Lieutenant (Teddy) Graham, and Sheridan Smith was superbly robust as the Countess (Doris), wife of a Polish airman. With Emma Handy as the wife of the Flight Sergeant, visiting him for one night, and Sarah Crowden as the hotel keeper, both gloriously down-to-earth and charmless, the women managed the understatement as if they were to the manner born. The men were a bit more variable. Harry Hadden-Paton as Teddy seemed just a bit over the top, with his bonhomie appearing slightly unnatural, and although James Purefoy came over as gutlessly charming in portraying the actor Peter Kyle, his later despair at losing Teddy’s wife seemed a bit forced. The Polish airman, played by Mark Dexter, lacked a Polish accent, and appeared a bit stupid, contradicting Teddy’s continued assertions that he was “good value”. On the other hand, Joe Armstrong as the Flight Sergeant was as down-to-earth as his wife, and Clive Wood as the Squadron leader was outstanding. He exhibited a glorious tendency to effeteness, and was so natural you felt he’d just stepped in from the past.

Sheridan Smith as Doris, all photos by Johan Persson

The use of occasional music from the 1940s was just right, and the set and costume designs by Stephen Brimson Lewis gave a great feeling of authenticity. This was enhanced enormously by the film sequences of bombers taking off, with very realistic sound effects. At the end of the play things came together as if by accident, which speaks well of this production by Trevor Nunn, but the first half seemed to go rather too slowly, getting nowhere very fast.

Final dénouement with Joe Armstrong, Clive Wood, Mark Dexter and Harry Hadden-Paton

In this centenary year of Rattigan’s birth his plays are popping up all over the place, and are all well worth seeing. Performances of Flare Path continue until June 4 — for more details click here.

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