THE works of Terence Rattigan have been widely revived in the past few years, triggered by the 2011 centenary of his birth, and one such play, Flare Path has survived this spate and is currently touring the country, visiting Bath this week. It is a period piece, set firmly in the Second World War, in a small hotel very near an Air Force base where a squadron of Wellington bombers sally forth over Germany, and we witness one such expedition, from the relative comfort of the residents’ lounge, from the build up, through the distant take-off of each of the four planes, which in one case leads to disaster, to the safe return of two planes, and the ensuing drama as a further plane is lost on its return.
Set against this is a subplot involving an affair between the actress wife of the pilot and a matinee idol she has worked with on Broadway, with them plotting to run away together, until the pilot reveals his inner self to his wife, showing what would now probably be diagnosed as post traumatic shock disorder, but he calls a lack of moral fibre. This puts her in a moral dilemma; leading her to stick with him, and rekindle their love, letting the film star go.
It is a simple tale, told simply, full of jolly jingoistic language such as “here’s fluff in your latchkey” and well-known forces nicknames such as “Dusty” Miller and “Wiggy” Jones, some of which survive to this day, and a very modern sounding Teddy, the pilot, catches himself saying something which he then refers to as “very Daily Mail”.
The sound and lighting design is wonderful, with a few well-chosen pieces of music to introduce the scenes, and sound effects of the planes talking off and rumbling across the auditorium, with just the right level of volume, and lighting through a rear window showing the planes successfully taking to the air, or in the case of A for Apple, bursting into flames, all of which helped evoke the atmosphere of a very real war.
Yes, there were a couple of TV names in the cast – the main girl from Lark Rise, and a chap from Darling Buds of May who has also spent many a week in Countdown’s dictionary corner – but to even mention their names would be to single them out from such a great ensemble, every one of whom brings something to the piece as a whole. There are some wonderful stock characters; waiter, hotel-keeper, Squadron Leader, film star, foreign pilot, and plenty of stiff upper lip British pilots, and in general these were played accurately and within the level of character rather than the temptation of slipping over the top and into caricature.
My one criticism is that for this production, as with most plays these days, the performance is split right down the middle, which somewhat ruins the craftwork of Mr Rattigan, who wrote three acts, and splitting the play in between the two scenes of Act Two is unnatural, and a little awkward. I would love to see this play with a short interval between each act, to allow a break, and time to think about what has happened and what is to come.
This is only a minor criticism of a great evening of classic British Theatre, reminiscent of a Saturday afternoon BBC2 black and white film, appropriately enough, as Rattigan adapted Flare Path into the 1945 film The Way To The Stars. It’s at the Theatre Royal, Bath, until Saturday.