Front Row Review: Flare Path

Date Posted: 29/03/2011

World War Two drama, Flare Path was first performed in the West End during 1942; so has it stood the test of time? Rob Yandell went to the Theatre Royal Haymarket to find out.

If you leave a theatre caring about the characters you have just met, I think it’s fair to say you have seen something special. Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path is the first production in a series that will see Trevor Nunn present as artistic director at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London’s West End. Nunn was the longest-serving artistic director and chief executive of the Royal Shakespeare Company (1968 to 1986); and with a truly world class CV, it is easy to see why this story of love, humour, courage, friendship and loss has been eagerly anticipated.

The strong cast adds an interesting combination of styles, with Sienna Miller, Sheridan Smith and James Purefoy taking lead roles in a story that highlights how great narrative can capture an audience, without the need for special effects and fancy routines.

As the curtain rose, we entered the atmospheric reception and lounge of the Falcon Hotel in 1942, on the edge of a Lincolnshire airfield. The set was finely detailed and provided the ideal backdrop for the drama to unfold, with a conflict of love and loyalty as unpredictable as the war in the skies.

Used to providing a roof for servicemen, the hotel welcomed an unlikely visitor, as heartthrob film star, Peter Kyle (James Purefoy) rang the bell at reception. I say a warm reception, but Sarah Crowden as proprietor, Mrs Oakes is a lady not to be taken lightly and I admit to enjoying her performance at a safe distance.

Peter Kyle is introduced to Countess Skriczevinsky (Doris) played by the wonderful, and now Olivier Award-winning Sheridan Smith. Inevitably, Smith adds humour, innocence and warmth to her likeable character and the exchanges with our Hollywood superstar were both funny and enjoyable.

The balance of drama (sometimes intense) and humour can often result in a performance that can be neither dramatic or funny; but the direction and cast performance here allowed us to laugh yet still become absorbed by the story unfolding before us.

As the scene was being set, it was Sheridan Smith who stood out for me; she has such a wonderful stage presence and excellent timing, which no doubt stems from her roots in comedy with hits such as Gavin & Stacey and most recently Legally Blonde The Musical. Doris’s happy-go-lucky, warm hearted approach to people and life was charming.

Although it was James Purefoy I came to see, it was Harry Hadden-Paton as Flight Lieutenant Graham, known as Teddy, who impressed me with his boundless energy, creating an instantly likeable character that I warmed to immediately. Teddy’s slick dialogue was hugely enjoyable and the banter and camaraderie between his fellow pilots enforced a real sense of friendship. Teddy was enjoying a reunion with his wife, Patricia (Sienna Miller), little realising that the new film star in town had not chosen the Falcon by accident. Mark Dexter as Flying Officer Count Skriczevinsky (Johnny) and husband to Doris had us in stitches with his Polish accent and attempts with the English language. Joe Armstrong as Sergeant Miller (Dusty) played a fine part but was overshadowed by some of the stronger performances on show. Emma Handy, however, impressed with her natural timing as Dusty’s wife Maudie, which resulted in a convincing performance.

As the pilots are called on another bombing mission over Germany, it occurred to me that our characters could all lose something: a loved one, love itself, a career, a wife, friends and colleagues – everything seemingly hanging by a thread. Flare Path appears to have it all and as the suspense heightened in the third act the performances from Sienna Miller and James Purefoy got better and better as their relationship swerved this way and that. In fact, Miller was excellent.

I enjoyed the innocent young Percy, played by Matthew Tennyson who was kept busy pulling pints. Clive Wood as Squadron Leader Swanson may not have much stage time, but he certainly added something when called upon.

For my money, plays have to be better than musicals; the latter usually fast-paced and fun, regardless of quality. But the time flew at the Theatre Royal Haymarket without cheesy tunes and lavish set changes. The way in which the characters pull you in is very much down to the skills of the actors before you. Harry Hadden-Paton was at the top of this talented pile, with his co-stars not far behind him. The story takes you back to a time of gentlemen; to the way things were (or at least how people want to remember them).

Flare Path is a wonderful piece of theatre, where you are more than entertained, you are sharing the lives of others for a short while. A top play is the privilege of seeing consummate professionals showcasing their craft at close hand. There is something a live performance gives you which cannot be matched.

Of course, like me, you may wonder what a Flare Path actually is. I discovered it’s the row of lights that show aeroplanes where to land. The title was suggested to Terrence Rattigan by a gentleman called Keith Newman, a psychiatrist who assisted him during a bad case of writer’s block. In fact, he recommended Rattigan join the air force, who went on to become a tail-gunner himself before penning Flare Path. It is therefore easy to see why the story boasts an authenticity that even tempted Winston Churchill to make a rare trip to the theatre, who commented: “I was very moved by this play. It is a masterpiece of understatement. But we are rather good at that, aren’t we?”

Flare Path is performing at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 11th June, Monday to Saturday at 7.30pm, with Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2.30pm. 

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