Flare Path is not Terence Rattigan’s finest play. It’s certainly not his most adventurous play. It was written at a time of great uncertainty, with him fearing for his career, his career, his abilities. He had been burned by the relative failure of his rather more daring After the Dance and, of course, it was wartime, so he needed a play to meet the mood of patriotism, sentiment and wishfulness. When Trevor Nunn revealed that he was going to revive Flare Path as part of the centenary celebrations, I had serious doubts that it was a good idea. What about Ross? What about a reinvigorated Winslow Boy? Why not, even, First Episode or Variation on a Theme? But it’s been the great surprise success of the centenary so far, so what do I know?
Flare Path is set in a small hotel in Lincolnshire near an air force base. The cast are the staff of the hotel and various bomber pilots and their wives. Into this setting comes the film star Peter Kyle, who is having an affair with Patricia, Flight Lieutenant Teddy Graham’s wife. In the central act we listen alongside the wives to the planes taking off on a night raid and coming back. It seems that one of the men has been killed after ditching into the sea, and this precipitates Patricia to decide that her place is beside her nervous husband. Peter leaves and in the final minutes the lost pilot returns to the delight of all.
David Hare has written a rather sour article claiming that the Rattigan revival - and the belief that he was hard done by - is an example of the right-wing cultural climate we are living through. Hare has been on record as admiring Rattigan very much; he’s written South Downs, a companion piece to The Browning Version, for Chichester, and one might observe that the central idea of Plenty, the difficulty felt by those who experienced the thrilling dangers of fighting for justice during the war in adjusting to life after it, was articulated rather well twenty-five years earlier in The Deep Blue Sea. He’s right to say that one can overstate Rattigan’s martyrdom - he was always being produced - but nonetheless, it is evident that Rattigan suffered personally by his rejection. Perhaps he shouldn’t have cared so much about being liked, but he did care and the withdrawal of love hurt him like the end of a thousand love affairs. Is it right wing to lament his rejection? Hardly. What’s conservative is to insist that the meaning of Look Back in Anger and all that came with it - and all that came before - is unambiguously fixed in the way a handful of critics understood it.
This play can seem somewhat conservative and in this production it seems so. Patricia is presented as a woman sacrificing herself for the war. We uncomplicatedly admire the RAF officers. The working class characters are sometimes figures of fun. This is, basically, the way the play’s always been seen and it might have been risky to shift the play too much.
But shift the play it does, a bit. In fact, the working-class characters are played with verve and seriousness, for the most part. Dusty (a Sergeant in the RAF) is played by Joe Armstrong without a hint of mockery; his lines come off fresh and true. Maudie is a bit of a caricature but Emma Handy finds more and more in it as the show goes on and the moment where the three wives find themselves together joining forces to distract themselves from their overwhelming tension is very powerful: it reminds me of the exemplary moment in The Deep Blue Sea with the three women left alone in the flat, sharing just a glance of complicity in their disappointment with their men. Most magnificently, Sheridan Smith, whom I’ve hymned before, brings out Doris as a breath of sheer life, urgent vitality, warmth and feeling, cutting through the slang and the stiffness, she just seems wholly alive. It’s a completely satisfying performance, adorable and moving.
Sienna Miller is not, to my mind, completely comfortable as Patricia. It’s a part that could be played such as to suggest deep ambivalence between lust and loyalty, dark thoughts in the night, and terrible conscience in the day. Miller’s just a bit flat in this. The ending, following Rattigan’s stage directions, has her silently long to follow Peter out of the hotel, which keeps alive her dignity and complexity, but I would like to see a production that dared to show Patricia unwillingly prepared to see her husband die, releasing her to her lover. In this, Trevor Nunn has given up on the emotional complexity for some CGI antics with crashing planes that weren’t a replacement. For me, the revelation among the leads was Harry Hadden-Paton as Teddy. The scene where he confesses his terror at flying is really shocking, raw and unexpected. In the War, it must have seemed absolutely on the edge between humanising and dangerously defeatist. Hadden-Paton is manically convivial - and rather camp too - and suggests increasingly a hysterical unmanliness or rather a retreat into unmanliness to cope with the funk that overwhelms him in the cockpit.
Much of Rattigan’s stagecraft is rudimentary, compared to the elegance his later work. Patricia and Peter conduct their affair in the public lounge, in which there are four entrance points which could be used at any point. This stretches credibility, especially when he also has a key moment where a conversation (on another matter) is overheard by Doris. But there are expert moments of compression and concision: the moment where Peter reads the Count’s letter to Doris - he’s translating a letter in French, written by a Pole, into English, to the man’s wife. The layers are expertly done, funny and tremendously touching. And the scene contains two revelations: Doris discovers that the man she always dared hope truly loved her truly did; Peter realises what Teddy means to Patricia. And none of this is verbalised; it’s all a dab of a hanky, a dignified walk upstairs, a slump of emotional defeat.
I don’t know that this production will establish this play entirely in Rattigan’s canon, but here it comes up shining like a new penny and I hope one day to see a production that explores the play’s darker corners.