Earlier this year, I wrote that if Less Than Kind was anything to go by, we should expect a fantastic year of Rattigan revivals. Flare Path, directed by Trevor Nunn, certainly more than surpassed my expectations. In all my years of going to the theatre, this Flare Path play/production is the first that has moved me to tears.
The play is set during the Second World War at a Lincolnshire hotel near a RAF base where the men and their wives gather for the weekend. One of these couples is Graham, a flight lieutenant, and his glamorous actress wife, Patricia. Patricia is planning to tell Graham that she wants to leave him. She is also taken by surprise to see her lover, the Hollywood actor Peter Kyle, unexpectedly arrive at the hotel. However, she isn’t able to speak to Graham just yet as the men are called back to the airbase to embark on a night-time operation. In the first half the play, Graham tells her how much he needs her as his Hollywood career is waning as he gets old. In the second half of the play, Graham, after having returned from his operation, tells Patricia how much he needs her as he relates his terrifying wartime experiences but also stands by his sense of duty. Patricia has to choose between her lover and her husband and I won’t give away too much of the plot here.
The play is a study of how the Second World War generation dealt with their terrifying circumstances with the British stiff upper lip approach. The characters here are afraid – and especially the women who fear that the day may come when they may never see their husbands- but no one rants at what life has thrown them. They have a duty and it is a duty they will honour, however painful it is. It is a reminder to us about how comfortable (and some may argue, complacent) our lives are and how much we all have to thank these men and women. There are no grand gestures in this play which is all the more reason why this is such a moving play.
Patricia’s dilemma between choosing her lover or her husband reflects how when there is an external major engulfing event going on (such as the war), our own personal lives and needs become diminutive in comparison. Interestingly, while this play does not pointedly emphasise this theme, it very subtly shows us about how men feel in these circumstances. They have to be useful, they have to be involved either frontline or otherwise. Otherwise, they have nothing to contribute and deemed useless not only by themselves but by others too. The hotel proprietress’ treatment of Peter Kyle is a case in point.Although the press has, thus far, focused on Sienna Miller’s participation in this play and while she is good as Patricia, her performance isn’t nearly as good as the rest of the superb and flawless cast. Three actors stand out in this production: James Purefoy (Peter Kyle), Harry Hadden-Paton (Graham) and Sheridan Smith (Countess Skriczevinsky) and I hope they get the critical acclaim they deserve. In the scene where Graham and Peter Kyle speak the morning after the night-time operation, you do wonder if Graham has all along been aware of the affair between the actor and his wife. There is just a slight change, almost a confrontational one, in Graham’s tone when he asks Peter to explain the important thing that needs to be discussed. This is a marked change in Graham from the rest of the play where he is cracking jokes to keep up the spirits while hiding his own fears.
This is a superior production that must not be missed. It will make you laugh and it will make you cry. It will also remind you that the men and women who belonged to the Second World War generation must not be forgotten.
Much to their credit, Theatre Royal Haymarket releases the two front row seats for £21 each daily. If you haven’t got a ticket yet, fear not. Just turn up at the theatre at 10 am on the day of your choice and queue up to get a ticket.
Flare Path is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 4 June. Running time is approximately 2 hr 45 mins with a 20 min interval.