Flare Path, Criterion Theatre, Coventry, until July 7
Take-off may be somewhat delayed, but once this production hits cruising speed, it rapidly develops a formidable feeling of altitude.
It’s no small task to point the relevance of Terence Rattigan’s wartime RAF drama to issues of today, but the real significance of the piece lies in the writer’s clever understatement of the ebb and flow of human emotions in conditions of stress.
Director Richard Warren and his company skilfully avoid the pitfalls of cliché which could easily emanate from characters like the superficially cheery young airman, the blustering squadron leader, the young wife indulging a love affair with a famous film star, and the barmaid whose marriage made her a Polish countess.
Their entangled relationships are played out in a country hotel in the shadow of an RAF bomber base, and Rattigan chose to underscore heroism in terms not only of the pilots but of the people below in facing the constant threat to the lives of their loved ones. Here, two expressive dualogues and a quartet of fine performances make the point with considerable fluency.
Ted McGowan superbly essays the young flight-lieutenant’s underlying fears as he pours out his heart to his wife and she, played with quiet sensitivity by Leonie Slater, is forced to question her loyalty.
Then there is Cathryn Bowler’s previously quirky countess movingly enduring the contents of her husband’s farewell letter as it is reluctantly read out to her by the love-distracted film actor (Chris Firth).
These stand-out sequences bring a huge lift to a production which, for much of its first half, is too ponderous. But the transformation is worth the wait and it’s sparked off by the spirited entrance and subsequent comic persona of the jaunty squadron-leader in the hands of Phil Reynolds.
Old-fashioned aspects of the play are more than balanced by the wit and subtlety of Rattigan’s writing and the atmospheric set design (Simon Sharpe).
And those aircraft sound-effects are positively startling.
Rattigan strips away the veneer to lay bare the heart of the matter
By Chris Arnot
Flare Path is a classic example of the stiff-lipped understatement that is the trademark of Terence Rattigan’s nonetheless impeccably crafted plays. And Rattigan was well qualified to write it, having served as a tail-gunner in the RAF.
There’s a scene where Sergeant Miller (a former bus-conductor as it happens) is asked what it’s like being a tail-gunner. “All right,” he says, through his alter-ego Michael Hammond. “A bit cold.”
A bit dangerous too, one imagines. But nobody would admit that in the residents’ lounge of a small hotel on the edge of a Lincolnshire airfield in 1941. Particularly when there were ladies present.
It was all about maintaining a veneer of civilisation at a time when civilisation itself was under the direst of threats.
Beneath the surface of that veneer, needless to say, there are all sorts of tensions. Tensest of all is a love triangle involving a Hollywood star, his actress lover and her husband who is risking his neck at regular intervals – in real life rather than on-screen.
Ted McGowan can be proud of his Criterion debut as Flight-Lieutenant Graham. He puts on a good show does Teddy – ale-fellow-well-met, rarely without a bottle of red-label Bass in his hand and a forced smile on his face. Until, that is, his underlying terrors make a
brief but touching appearance.
As his wife Patricia, Leonie Slater goes through an extraordinary array of facial expressions, torn as she is between marital duty and lingering lust - for Peter Kyle, that is. He’s the famous actor who has breezed in to see her on his way to London. Chris Firth plays him with an effortless swagger. His inbuilt sense of self-assurance, however,
begins to fade as the reality of war begins to dawn. Not to mention his
exclusion from it.
Anne Houston is imperious as a haughty hotel manageress of her time and Cathryn Bowler is convincing as a Polish Countess with a Lincolnshire accent. Well, she was a barmaid until she married a Polish airman who just happened to be a Count.
Three hours (albeit with two intervals) seem to fly by – all too literally at times as the roar of aircraft engines intrude menacingly on the hotel lounge.
Flare Path is a reminder of the sacrifices made by Rattigan’s tight-lipped generation and the freedoms they guaranteed for angry young men and women to rant at will for generations to come.
Pictured: Leonie Slater as Patricia Graham and Ted McGowan as Teddy.
For tickets go to: https://www.criteriontheatre.co.uk/