Chris Eldon Lee reviews Shropshire Drama Company’s production of ‘Flare Path, which is at Theatre Severn until Saturday June 29th.
This an absolutely superb play; a devastatingly good drawing room drama, authentically written, in very special circumstances … in the midst of hostilities.
Terrance Rattigan was himself an RAF Coastal Command tail gunner and no stranger to dangerous sorites. Between ‘shouts’ he mixed and mingled with other air crew and their families. So, he noted down the stories they told and crafted them into a classic, well-made play. The result is a hugely honest and sympathetic study of the enormous pressures of war on the men who valiantly fought it, and the wives who patiently waited.
The whole play is peopled with fabulous characters, all fully realised by Rosalind Garrard’s well-chosen and highly talented cast.
Rattigan’s aircrews live and breathe like real people, saying real things, with real emotion; in stark contrast to the stiff-limbed, stiff-lipped chaps in the heroic films of the time. The movies were unreal…but, frankly, from a bomber pilot’s perspective, so was the war.
Rattigan uses a fading film star as the engine of his story; a man so steeped in celluloid he’s almost living in a film world. James Mitchell puts his finger firmly on the sinister streak in Hollywood’s Peter Kyle, who has shared a showbiz love affair with a young actress called Pat – played with great sensitivity and a real appreciation of the period by Emily Walker – and has returned from America to reclaim her.
But she’s now married to an earnest bomber pilot, Teddy, who is one of the ‘few’ to whom we owe so much. She’s torn between the husband she absolutely admires, but thinks she can’t love, and a man full of showbiz passion. There’s a 50% chance her husband won’t survive. What should she do? The painful irony is that Teddy is truly dependent on a wife who wants away.
Rattigan sets his RAF version of the ‘eternal triangle’ in a small hotel beside a Lincolnshire aerodrome where we see the airmen settling in for a quiet weekend with their wives; till they are suddenly mustered to perform a particularly dangerous night raid along the Rhine.
The situation is surprisingly tense. 80 years after the event, I still found myself counting planes out along the airfield’s flare path (whilst the Luftwaffe circled overhead) and waiting nervously with the wives for them to come back.
Jack Henderson’s big scene – when Teddy finally ‘loses it’ after one mission too many – is acted with absolute skill and complete conviction. It’s a confessional that would have stayed on the Ealing Studios cutting room floor for fear it might undermine moral. But Rattigan knew first-hand the fallibilities of his colleagues and lays them bare on stage to touch our hearts. Henderson presents it to perfection.
Humour was vital to the war effort and Rattigan sprinkles his play with plenty of it. Michele Rowland-Jones is truly comical as the grumpy hotelier. It’s almost as if she is channelling the spirit of the original Rover’s Return landlady, Annie Walker, with her sharp wit and old fashioned put downs. She is so fearful, brave night pilots, unable to face an egg and bacon breakfast, would rather bury the rationed rashers in the garden.
I really warmed to Derek Willis as the mother-hen squadron leader, caring so deeply for his brood. Jodie Welsh was endlessly vivacious as she clinged onto Doris’s cockney cheerfulness, despite her Polish husband (a comically tongue-tied Ben Christie) being reported missing. David Hughes-Beddows and Lucy Hagen portrayed a lovely bickering couple with just the right amount of restraint. And Nathan Thorley made the most of his waiting duties, whilst ensuring everyone was aware of how much he knows about the RAF’s secret operations.
Flare Path is a play that might not leap at you from the pages of the Theatre Severn brochure, but it will embrace you from the stage. The politely understated Airforce jingo is deeply nostalgic. The emotions are so complete and the resolutions so rewarding. The whole evening is as warming – and thought provoking – as a favourite old black and white film. And if you think I’m being over-effusive…go and see for yourself.
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