I’ve always had a soft spot for Terence Rattigan. I think it’s because I was so impressed when, shortly after my 17th birthday, I took myself off to London to see a production of Separate Tables starring the somewhat legendary John Mills and Jill Bennett. With a supporting cast of elderly theatricals like Ambrosine Philpotts and Raymond Huntley, it was a masterclass in acting understatement. And that is what Rattigan does best – conveying deep emotion and powerful personal dilemma in an environment where the stiff upper lip is all. I’m not sure I understood at the time the irony of casting Jill Bennett in that play – the ex-Mrs John Osborne, whose “kitchen sink” Look Back in Anger has always been seen as the antidote to Rattigan’s “well-made plays”.
This was the first time I’ve seen Flare Path, although I read it in my early 20s, but I could remember very little of it. Rattigan wrote it whilst he was in the RAF and it’s based on his own wartime experiences. Flt-Lt Teddy Graham is a young officer at Milchester airbase in Lincolnshire, who has recently married an actress, Patricia. She has been performing in a play in London and therefore has not been able to support him in person on his air raids. Teddy is respected and trusted throughout the squadron, especially by his faithful Air Gunner Dusty Miller. After the run of Patricia’s play has finished, she comes up to Lincolnshire to be with Teddy. But that evening, in a local hotel, where the squadron members go after their raids to relax and regroup, Patricia and Teddy’s marriage is threatened by the sudden arrival of Peter Kyle, a Hollywood film actor with whom Patricia had a relationship before she married Teddy. Kyle wants Patricia to break it off with Teddy – and she admits she doesn’t really love her husband in the way she loved Kyle. However, just before Kyle engineers a showdown where Patricia will tell Teddy that it’s all over, Squadron Leader Swanson arrives to inform the men that their evening of relaxation with their wives is cancelled, because they’re all due out on a raid that night. What Patricia has to tell Teddy will have to wait until the morning. But what will happen overnight? And how will it change the course of events the next day? I’m not going to tell you that, you’ll have to see the play.
It’s a finely structured, deeply moving, rather solemn play but with occasional flashes of surprising humour. We were both struck by how the play examines the theme of sacrifice. Of course, the brave airmen who don’t come back from their missions make the ultimate sacrifice; but those left at home too must sacrifice their homes, their jobs, their lifestyles. Squadron Leader Swanson even sacrifices his sleep so that he can be there for the team when they get back from their raids. And when it comes to affairs of the heart, sometimes these too have to be sacrificed for the greater good and in the cause of simply doing the right thing. Teddy can be seen as a typical Rattigan male – on the face of it, noble; but concealing an aspect of himself of which he is not proud, or cannot come to terms – in this case, his fear of undergoing the air raid missions. Just like Separate Tables’ Major Pollock, hiding the allegations of sexually harassing women in a cinema, or indeed Rattigan himself concealing his homosexuality, Teddy’s a man with a murky secret – a flawed hero. In a few years’ time, elements of his character would develop into Freddie Page in The Deep Blue Sea, drunk and depressed from his wartime experiences.
Do you remember the late Brian Hanrahan’s reporting of the Falklands War back in 1982? As he watched the British Harrier jets taking off from HMS Hermes to launch the first air attack on Port Stanley, he wasn’t allowed to report the numbers of jets involved. He just, famously, said: “I counted them all out, and I counted them all back”. Such are the lives of the women waiting behind at the Falcon Hotel in Milchester. Countess Doris listens for the minute details of each aircraft flying overhead, knowing which ones are in trouble (“she’s flying on three engines. Been shot up, I expect”), and which are successfully taxi-ing after landing. They brave the blackout recriminations of Mrs Oakes as they open the curtains to watch the planes take off and land. It really gave me, as a modern audience member, who has never personally been involved with any military combat, an insight into what it must be like to be on the edges of war action – fully supportive of the war effort, but desperately worried about each and every outcome.
Mrs Chrisparkle and I were chatting during the interval. “You know it’s not going to end well, don’t you” she suggested. I agreed. Every indication was that at least some of our brave boys were not going to see it to the final curtain. But, without giving too much of the game away, you can appreciate that the original 1942 audience might not have warmed to too tragic a finale, and I don’t suppose Rattigan wanted theatregoers sobbing in the aisles every night. If you’re after a happy ending, you might be lucky.
So what of this production by the Original Theatre Company and Birdsong Productions? It seems very faithful to the original, dividing up Rattigan’s three acts into the current popular requirement for two, by bringing in the interval between Scenes One and Two of the second Act. I enjoyed the adherence to Rattigan’s original stage direction of having aircraft noises and communication sounds carrying on all through the interval, which keeps the audience in the zone whilst fighting over their ice-creams. “Wiggy Jones” has been replaced by “Betty” but that’s hardly material. Hayley Grindle’s set changes the position of the reception desk from Stage Right to Stage Left and brings the ever-burning fire more to the centre of the action, but otherwise is barely changed from the original. The sound effects – on which the play relies quite heavily – are authentic and crystal clear. For our performance, we had text captions either side of the stage which I have to say is an innovation that I really like. I think my hearing’s okay on the whole, but sometimes you can really benefit from having accents clarified or quickly spoken sequences visually presented to you.
A strong, mature play like this with some meaty roles cries out for some top quality performances; and this is where it gets a little disappointing. I think the production has a new cast for its 2016 tour and some of the scenes haven’t quite bedded down properly yet. It’s not badly performed by any means, but a couple of the more important roles were, for me, a little wooden and didn’t quite convey everything that I think Rattigan would have intended. To be honest, Lynden Edwards as Peter Kyle didn’t make the role particularly interesting. When he translated the Count’s letter for Doris, I sensed you should have been overwhelmed with emotion of some sort – but you weren’t really. I wouldn’t say it was like reading a shopping list, but you would have suspected an actor like Kyle would have put a little more expression into it. In some of the earlier scenes too, I just didn’t feel Mr Edwards quite got it. Hedydd Dylan, as Patricia, was also rather slow to get going in her role, although by the time we reached the final scene I thought she brought out all the appropriate self-doubt and emotional turmoil.
Fortunately, there were also some excellent performances. I was really impressed with Daniel Fraser as Teddy, a confident and credible performance as the archetypal hero playing the game whilst deep inside feeling distraught. His breakdown scene was tremendously moving and believable. I’ve not seen Mr Fraser before and I think he could be One To Watch. Claire Andreadis gave us a very bubbly Countess Doris, amusingly conveying her starstruck-ness in the presence of Peter Kyle, yet resolute and strong in the face of the apparent death of her husband. Jamie Hogarth was excellent as Dusty Miller, balancing friendliness and respect with his Skipper, whilst gently remonstrating with his wife for her uselessness on buses; the embodiment of salt of the earth. Audrey Palmer was delightfully frosty as the proprietor Mrs Oakes, and the ever-reliable Graham Seed was perfect as Swanson, the senior officer who was more of a friend than a superior, yet could command his men effortlessly when needs must.
Despite any reservations about the performances, Flight Path still comes across as an engrossing and emotional play, with timeless themes and a huge amount of dignity. Whilst somewhere in the world airmen are still flying bombing raids to attack the enemy, this play will never go away. Congratulations, Sir Terence, your play still rocks! The tour continues throughout the UK until May.