This review of Flare Path first appeared in Offbeat News, our bi-monthly newsletter.
How do modern audiences react to an obvious period piece? Is it seen as a pastiche? Maybe a clever send up? Perhaps as a genuine portrayal of contemporary events. Could it be that for older theatre-goers there are touches of nostalgia or even recollections of half-forgotten memories?
Whatever, Mel Powell’s production of Rattigan’s WWII morale-booster certainly featured many such aspects. The dialogue was full of wartime jargon and propaganda. Social stratification was highly marked, if inevitably weakening under stress. Pseudo-insouciance together with a stiff-upper-lip bulldog spirit combined to generate an authentic atmosphere which characterised the times. This felt the real thing.
Chris Janes’s set captured to a 'T' the faded gentility of a modest pre-war hotel lounge-cum-bar fallen on hard times halfway through the war. The combination of two hefty armchairs with their yellowing antimacassars, the thread-bare carpets, drop-leaf table and be-tassled lampshade was neatly updated by the strips of sticky anti-blast paper across the windows. Only the heavy serge of blackout material seemed to be missing to whisk us back seven decades or more.
The casting of the three couples and four individuals was particularly happy, even if the characters did fall inevitably and necessarily into their appointed personae. Skilfully their differing interpretations did allow for plenty of subtlety without straying into stereotyping.
Jackie Lawn seemed especially at home in her role of Mrs Oakes, the pernickety landlady of the Falcon Hotel. Punctilious in her observance of social norms and graces and yet too genteel to have run a pre-war seaside guest house and certainly no cartoon boarding-house battle-axe, she nevertheless showed a steely draconianism, ensuring that standards were maintained whatever the circumstances. For the audience her seemingly inadvertent touches of comedy eased the tension.
Tom McGill was the youthful pot-boy and bell hop, Percy, ever curious about wartime operations, knowledgeable about aircraft and apparently oblivious of the dictum that ‘idle talk costs lives’. How the beer kept flowing, I do not know, for most bars were dry by Tuesday. Saturday must have been delivery day.
The avuncular Squadron Leader Swanson, adjutant of the nearby Lincolnshire airfield of heavy bombers, was played with great decorum by Paul Russell. A WWI veteran who had seen it all, he epitomised calming stoicism in every crisis.
The most enigmatic character of the play was undoubtedly the Hollywood heartthrob, Peter Kyle, played with immense forcefulness by Paul Morton. Kyle is a complex character, warranting an analysis in his own right, but somehow Paul managed to convey the many facets through a series of fleeting references: suave, outwardly self-assured, instantly recognisable yet a waning film star suddenly full of self-doubt, heart-broken lover seeking to rekindle an old flame, British born, even attired in well-worn tweed jacket with leather elbow patches, yet obviously American without the twang, he was nonetheless ‘over here’. Paul Morton succeeded in welding these facets together to become very credible... Did Rattigan realise that in 1942 he would never get an American actor across the pond and so had to create this touch of incongruity?
The three couples could hardly be more disparate, thrown together in the wilds of Lincolnshire by the vagaries of war. Most anomalous were Count and Countess (aka Doris) Skriczenvinsky, taken respectively by Des Turner and Helen Budd, he an aristocratic Pole flying with the RAF, she, at the time of their marriage, an East End barmaid. Together yet always apart, much of their lives exemplified wartime romance, the constant danger of night-time operations for him and the recurrent threat of ‘lost in action’ for her.
The Millers were salt of the earth, getting on with it, doing their bit. Sergeant ‘Dusty’ Miller was ‘Tail-end Charlie’ in a Wellington bomber; ‘Dusty’ (Mark James) and Maudie (Ashleigh Harper) steadfastly portrayed the phlegmatic attitude that seemed so prevalent. Bombed out of their London home, for Dusty flying provided an opportunity to widen his horizons, move in a different social circle, albeit remaining respectful of and confident in the ability of his younger Flight Lieutenant. Likewise Maudie, working in a laundry in St Albans, because ‘someone has to do it’, displayed the ubiquitous resolution to get the job done come what may, in her case dealing with haphazard public transport.
Which brings us to the central couple, Teddy and Patricia Graham, around whom so much of the emotional action revolves. At the outset Flight Lieutenant Graham (Matthew Greenbank) was almost the archetypal image of an RAF pilot, debonair, devil-may-care, redolent with bonhomie. An unscheduled night-time operation in which he brought his damaged aircraft safely back home was the catalyst for his fear of ‘loss of moral fibre’ and confession to his wife of his need for her support and devotion.
Patricia Graham (Josie Melton) was a successful West-End actress, barely married for a year after a wartime whirlwind romance but hiding a dark secret. She was still in love with Peter Kyle and was being pressed to marry him now that his divorce was assured. She had planned to break with Teddy over that weekend. Patricia displayed consummate self-control throughout, possibly as befits an actress, but what in the end decided her to stand by her man, the audience must decide. Teddy’s fear and eventual breakdown revealing his need, or maybe the realisation that Peter was a fading star, not worth clinging to?
One last point is well worth making. Both the sound and lighting were first class, even if many of us could not distinguish a Wellington from a Halifax.
We have come to expect the highest standards from CoPs but for all-round performance this production of Flare Path was definitely whizz-ho.
Review by John Grisbrooke. Photographs by Steve Beeston.