The first half of Trevor Nunn’s revival of Terence Rattigan’s Second World War play, Flare Path, ends with a moving tableau: three women, subtly distanced from one another by class but united in their silent vigil as they wait for news of their husbands’ safe return from a bombing raid.
Rattigan’s play, written in 1942 and influenced by his own stint in the RAF, excels in these details, in its effective and elegant charting of an extreme emotional landscape, a world in which every parting might be the last. Patricia, the wife of a chipper young Flight Lieutenant Teddy Graham, making her first visit to her husband during a ‘do’ (military slang for a raid) admits to finding the whole situation slightly unreal. Doris, a former barmaid who, thanks to the upheavals of the war, is now married to a Polish count, has been living it alongside her husband, every day, every night- her ear is so keen she can pick out different aircraft from the sound their engines make – corrects her. It’s not unreal, it’s as real as it gets; it’s the hand they’ve been dealt and they need to face it.
Flare Path is not the most subtle of Rattigan’s plays but it is adept at showing the fear and distress barely masked by the military banter and the celebratory sing-songs. On top of this he sets a love triangle of sorts, a familiar Rattigan tangle, but it’s his depiction of a wartime world that proves most emotive.
Patricia turns out to have been having an affair with Peter Kyle, a film star now heading into middle age and aware his acting chops might not be able to carry him once his looks have faded. He’s come to claim Patricia, who seems to have married Teddy on something of a whim. Her young husband is dazzled by her but seems to view her as more of a trophy, a thing to be adored, than a wife, while Kyle’s desire for her is different, more sensuous.
The play is set in the lobby of a Lincolnshire hotel in 1941, across the course of a long, turbulent night. The men fly out and while some return, some don’t. Henry Hadden-Paton conveys the perfect English mixture of swagger and reserve as Teddy, so when, having been finally left alone with his wife he buckles in terror, unable to maintain his façade of control any longer, it’s quite wrenching to witness. Sienna Miller is suitably graceful and distant as Patricia, the young actress torn between the two men. Her waking up to her husband’s need for her and what it might mean for them both is nicely handled, if maybe a little too internalised. James Purefoy’s Kyle meanwhile neatly combines a silver screen suavity with a tendency towards pomposity and little boy outbursts.
But though the acting is for the most part strong, the production belongs to Sheridan Smith, as Doris, a role that could all too easily have lapsed into cliché. There is something endearingly clear-eyed and self-knowing in her love for her husband. When Kyle casts doubt on whether the Count would want to take a barmaid back to Poland with him after the war, her hurt is obvious but she quietly concedes that she has also thought of this. Smith seems to fully inhabit the character from the intentness with which she watches the window for signs of her husband’s return to the tired but warm smile she gives the boy who’s trying to boost her spirits. Joe Armstrong and Clive Wood also do much with slighter roles as the stereotypically chirpy Cockney Sergeant and the kindly, paternal Squadron Leader Swanson (inevitably known as Gloria to the men).
Occasionally the play can feel laboured, some of the exits and entrances mechanical and convenient, and Nunn’s revival rather too stately in places. Stephen Brimson-Lewis’s set, spread over two levels, with – undeniably impressive – video projections used to show the take-off of the Wellington bombers, is a hulking thing that sometimes swamps the more intimate moments. The whole production feels, at times, a bit too ‘big’, which in turn seems to trigger some moments of ‘big’ acting, but by the end this has ceased to be an issue. Given the context in which the play was written and the audience it was written for Rattigan’s use of the sentimental seems not only justifiable but necessary and the final scenes of momentary joy and uplift still have the power to move.