There is just a hint of wartime propaganda about this play. “We’re all in this together” (unlike today, I fear) and if we stick together (and don’t stray), the sustaining and stabilizing power of a wholesome marriage will see you through.
But there is absolutely nothing jingoistic about Rattigan’s script. It’s an honest and hugely sympathetic study of the enormous pressures of war on the men who fought it, and the wives who waited.
Terence Rattigan wrote ‘Flare Path’ in the thick of 1942 and its absolute authenticy draws hugely on his own experiences as an airborne gunner; and of life back on terra firma between sorties. So you won’t be surprised to learn that his characters live and breath like real people, saying real things; in stark contrast to the hearty, stiff limbed, stiff lipped chaps in the heroic films of the time. You sense he scorned those movies, as he happily takes the rise out the RAF Lingo that populated them.
But he 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. Peter Kyle (played with dashing vulnerability by Leon Ockenden) has shared a showbiz love affair with a young actress called Pat (played with forthright sensitivity by Olivia Hallinan) and has returned from America to reclaim her.
There is instant electricity. But she’s now married to a bomber pilot. Teddy is one of the ‘few’ to whom we owe so much. She’s torn between the husband she absolutely admires but doesn’t love, and a man full of fairy tale passion. There’s a 50% chance her husband won’t survive. Her lover wants to whisk her away.
Rattigan sets his RAF version of the ‘eternal triangle’ in a hotel beside a Lincolnshire aerodrome where we see the aircrews settling in for a quiet weekend with their wives; till they are mustered to perform a special night raid along the Rhine.
Designer Hayley Grindle provides us with a huge sky canvass and the technicians with an excellent sound and lighting plot to help our imaginations paint the action. It’s all surprisingly tense. We count the planes out along the airfield’s flare path – whilst the Luftwafer circles overhead – and wait nervously with the wives, willing them to come back.
What settles matters is a fine pivotal ‘losing it’ performance by Alastair Whately when Teddy can no longer disguise the illness and fear that consumes him, raid after raid. His keynote confessional scene (pictured) would have stayed on the cutting room floor at Ealing Studios for fear it might undermine the cause. But Rattigan is a cut above cinema sentiment. He knows first hand the fallibilities of his colleagues and lays them bare to touch our hearts.
Humour was vital in the war effort and he leavens his play with it. Philip Franks is a pirouetting pleasure as the old ‘mother hen’ Squadron Leader and Holly Smith is steadily comical as the grumpy cook. She is so fearful, brave night pilots unable to face a bacon breakfast would rather bury the rationed rashers in the garden.
There is care, comedy and conscience in this play; which is as warming as the remarkably realistic log fire that burns at the heart of it.
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