Flare Path – Theatre Royal Haymarket

2011 is going to be a year packed with terrence Rattigan. In the centenary of his birth, theatres up and down the country will be presenting his work in celebration.

The first major London revival of the year is also Trevor Nunn’s first offering as part of his residency at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.

Set in a inn on the edge of a second World War airfield, Flare Path looks at the impact of the perilous career of a bomber pilot. Not just the impact on themselves but also on their loved ones; the unspoken fear that today’s flight may be the one that doesn’t return pervades the air.

Despite the threat hanging over them, or perhaps because of that, the crews are determined to live life to the full. Drinks are downed, legs are pulled, and love is very much in the air. Into this closed world of RAF-speak, acronyms and procedures walks American movie star Peter Kyle. While his arrival is welcomed by the crews as a welcome injection of fame but his motives are much darker.

Trevor Nunn’s direction concentrates on character and the interrelationships between this characters whom, in a peace-time setting, would never interact – the Polish Count and his British former barmaid wife, the Flight Lieutenant and his actress wife, the former Army commander, now returned to a desk job, and the outwardly cocky navigator who isn’t quite as blasé as he may seem.

Nunn has assembled a strong company and performances are impressive throughout. Sheridan Smith shakes off her Legally Blonde persona with a moving portrayal of Dorris, the Countess Skriczevinsky. Her performance is nicely understated, totally devoted to her husband but determined to be strong when his plane is reported missing in action. There is real chemistry between Smith and Mark Dexter as her husband that makes the scene where Dorris reads the letter her Count has left her in the event of his death painfully believable.

There is also strong chemistry between James Purefoy, Sienna Miller and Harry Hadden-Paton in a tangled triangle that threatens to destroy them all.

Valiantly trying to maintain order in the guest house is Mrs Oakes, played in formidable style by Sarah Crowden. On the exterior she may bear a passing resemblance to Fawlty Towers battle-axe Sybill but, beneath the icy cold exterior, there is a real warmth for the pilots under her care.

There is always a challenge with any classic piece secured to a specific period to try and reveal something new in the piece but Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set design is highly traditional and one that could serve any play of the period.

In this early performance (press night is 10th March although none of the performances are marked as previews) projection backdrops failed after a few seconds so it is impossible to comment what part they play in the design.

Flare Path is typical Rattigan; it does take investment from the audience to draw out some of the complexities of the plot and, in this production, especially in the second act, pace does seem to drag at times but put in the effort and it repays.

This isn’t a revelatory production but for a solid period piece it works well.

Disclaimer: Technically this could be classed as a preview performance as prior to press night, although nothing on the theatre website or show leaflet mentions anything about previews and gives an opening date of 4 March.

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