wed 23/04/2014

Flare Path, Theatre Royal Haymarket | Theatre reviews, news & interviews

Flare Path, Theatre Royal Haymarket

Trevor Nunn’s Rattigan revival, starring Sienna Miller, is a blazing triumph

Illicit lovers: James Purefoy as Peter and Sienna Miller as PatriciaJohan Persson

Tender, funny and overwhelmingly moving, Trevor Nunn’s revival of this 1942 drama by Terence Rattigan – part of the playwright’s centenary-year celebrations – is a masterly piece of theatre. The big box-office draw may be Sienna Miller, but she’s by no means the star of the show: if there is one, it’s Sheridan Smith, whose performance is nothing short of glorious. But this is essentially a shattering ensemble work, in which every detail glows with truth, compassion and humanity, and where every seemingly ordinary second of life in an existence hemmed in by the ever-present threat of death is charged with a quiet intensity.

Tender, funny and overwhelmingly moving, Trevor Nunn’s revival of this 1942 drama by Terence Rattigan – part of the playwright’s centenary-year celebrations – is a masterly piece of theatre. The big box-office draw may be Sienna Miller, but she’s by no means the star of the show: if there is one, it’s Sheridan Smith, whose performance is nothing short of glorious. But this is essentially a shattering ensemble work, in which every detail glows with truth, compassion and humanity, and where every seemingly ordinary second of life in an existence hemmed in by the ever-present threat of death is charged with a quiet intensity.

Rattigan was writing from personal experience with this play populated by the young RAF pilots of Bomber Command and their wives: he himself was a Second World War tail-gunner, a highly dangerous position he adopted partly in the hope that it would act as an antidote to his bout of writer’s block. The activities of Bomber Command have become controversial, since the crews, though initially deployed to bomb military targets, were later involved in attacks on civilian areas. But their courage was extraordinary: their role was almost impossibly perilous, and fatalities were frequent.

It’s amid such humbling heroism that Rattigan’s exhilarating story of loyalty, love and moral choices unfolds. Stephen Brimson Lewis’s impeccably detailed, wood-pannelled design conveys the Lincolnshire hotel near an RAF airbase, where the wives of the pilots come to spend some brief, precious time with their husbands. Polish officer Count “Johnny” Skriczevinsky (Mark Dexter) is with Doris (Smith), a former barmaid; no-nonsense Maudie (Emma Handy) arrives to see Dusty (Joe Armstrong), a cheerful Cockney ex-bus driver; and Patricia (Miller), an elegant actress, is taking a break from rehearsals in London to be with Flight Lieutenant Teddy Graham (Harry Hadden-Paton). But there’s an unexpected extra guest: film star Peter Kyle (James Purefoy), an incongruous visitor to this workaday establishment, given his glamorous Hollywood connections.

nFlarePathattheTheatreRoyalHaymarket.PhotobyJohanPersson-3It transpires that he and Patricia had a love affair when they worked together some years earlier. At the time of her marriage to Teddy after a "whirlwind romance", Patricia was still in love with Peter, and they've recently rekindled their feelings for one another. Now, with his career on the wane as he advances in years and loses his matinee-idol allure, Peter has come to persuade Patricia to leave Teddy for him; and despite her initial shock at seeing him, she agrees. But when a raid over Germany is announced for that night and the men are torn away from their loved ones, she misses her chance to break the news to Teddy. And as the Wellington bombers roar off along the flare path that lights their way into the engulfing black void beyond – a sequence electrifyingly suggested in projected imagery by Jack James – no one can be sure which, if any, of the pilots will ever be coming back.

At the first press performance, Miller’s shaking hands and occasional dropped props suggested nerves. But she has a lily-like grace, and while hers is not an arresting presence, she does bring dignity and a flavour of bitter self-reproach to the role, as well as showing us fleeting glimpses of the laughing, charismatic stage creature Patricia might be in her own theatrical environment. Purefoy, meanwhile, treads with astonishing aplomb a tricky fine line in portraying Peter, whose veneer of easy charm cracks to reveal a tendency towards selfish pettiness, vanity and a sense of superiority. Purefoy never flinches from these unattractive attributes; yet miraculously, he manages to retain our sympathy. Hadden-Paton, whose adoration of his beautiful wife is almost that of a smitten schoolboy, is at first all bravado, stiff upper lip and euphemistic RAF slang, before disintegrating in terror and shame. Armstrong and Handy are immensely touching as Dusty and Maudie, whose marital bickering only partially conceals a deep devotion to one another. And Matthew Tennyson as the gawky waiter Percy and Sarah Crowden as the dour hotelier Mrs Oakes add comic colour, as well as a beautifully understated sympathy for the couples they serve.

But it’s Sheridan Smith as Doris (pictured above), and her untrammelled, uncomplicated love for her husband - Dexter’s haunted, gentle Johnny with his broken English - that tears your heart out. Concealing her fear of losing her Count beneath bustle and a brilliant smile, she’s almost agonisingly moving. And there’s a piercing moment when she overhears Patricia and Peter gossiping about her marriage, and suggesting that Johnny will desert her, thanks to her lowly social origins, after the war; gulping back tears, she confesses that she believes their suspicions are right – and with poignant generosity, scolds not them, but herself, for eavesdropping. Her uncomplaining bravery is a potent parallel to that of the pilots; and it’s devastatingly affecting. So, too, is the entirety of Trevor Nunn’s production: a blazing triumph of true power and passion.

As the Wellington bombers roar off along the flare path that lights their way, no one can be sure which of the pilots will ever be coming back

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Comments

I would consider Sheridan the draw in this production. I don't recall Sienna Miller doing anything to qualify her as a draw. Sheridan is awesome.

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