Apart from a modestly cast King’s Head revival twenty years ago, Terence Rattigan’s second commercial success, Flare Path (1942), has been unjustly forgotten, and Trevor Nunn’s superb production marks not only the playwright’s centenary but also his own new season as the Haymarket’s artistic director.
Members of Britain’s war-time bomber command are stationed near the Falcon Hotel in Lincolnshire, where the film actor Peter Kyle (James Purefoy) turns up to pursue his affair with former actress Patricia Warren (Sienna Miller), now married to flight lieutenant Teddy Graham (Harry Hadden-Paton).
Rattigan untangles this romantic situation with great skill, revealing deep ties of dependency, exacerbated by the bombing experience, while animating the lives of other airmen and their partners, notably the flirtatious Cockney countess Doris (Sheridan Smith), married to Mark Dexter’s Polish daredevil, and the anxious Maudie Miller (Emma Handy) married to Joe Armstrong’s earthily decent rear gunner.
There’s quite a lot asked of the comparatively inexperienced Sienna Miller; but she does convey a sense of emotional disturbance without being too specific. Occasionally, alas, she’s just vacant. Purefoy’s slightly seedy actor, worried about losing his looks, is equally too opaque, but perfectly cast as a sort of louche Gregory Peck.
Nunn and his designer Stephen Brimson Lewis have created a period style without making the acting seem arch or mannered in the brown-panelled residents’ lounge, expertly lit by Paul Pyant and patrolled by Sarah Crowden’s severe landlady. And the fateful night mission, four bombers taking off along the flare path, is cinematically projected above the set, a coup that works despite Rattigan’s cleverness in painting the scene merely in the dialogue.
The atmosphere of waiting for the men to return must have been deeply moving to the original war-time audiences, but Nunn’s cast, and especially Sheridan Smith, convey this time of teetering on tenterhooks with power and resonance.
Smith’s brilliant technical acting allows you to know and think what she feels at every second: she sparkles with emotional volatility throughout. There’s a likeable and surprisingly bumptious performance, too, from the massively thickset Clive Wood as Squadron Leader Swanson, who can have done nothing at all to justify his nickname of “Gloria.”