Chocks Away: ‘Flare Path’ lights the way at the Theatre Royal Haymarket

Review of the preview 5th March 2011

We were particularly keen to see this play, one of a number of revivals celebrating Terence Rattigan’s centenary, starring as it does James Purefoy, whom we first saw 12 years ago at the Tricycle in a little known play called ‘Four Nights in Knaresborough‘.  We tipped him for stardom at the time and have been looking forward to his return to the stage.

Let’s get this straight from the start.  This play is long (although at under 3 hours quite short by Trevor Nunn’s standards).  It’s a classic four acter, an experience which was apparently alien to many of the audience, who began heading for the bar as soon as the curtain went down on the first act, only to return sheepishly a few moments later after noticing that the curtain had risen on the second act.  No doubt the pace will tighten a little, but this play is a slow-burner, and all the more satisfying for it.

Although the posters suggest that this is a love story, the play offers much more.  With near realtime action and a single set, we are invited into the world of bomber command for 24 hours, as the aircrew are cruelly denied their night off for a last-minute mission, leaving their wives (and hollywood film star Purefoy) alone in a country hotel on the Lincolnshire coast.  We weren’t surprised to learn afterwards that Terrence Rattigan was a rear gunner in the war, given the authentic feel of the play.

This play allowed us to appreciate anew what a great craftsman Rattigan was.  None of the dialogue is superfluous – even the uncomfortable comedy moments resulting from the Polish pilot’s lack of English become the source of great poignancy later in the play.  Everybody’s story is important and told with great humanity and humour without becoming sentimental.  For the most part, the cast worked beautifully together, fleshing out their characters in parts both large and small.

The only weak link is unfortunately the most vital one, Sienna Miller, as the actress whom neither her husband nor lover can live without.  The dialogue suggests an emotionally complex character who exerts considerable power over the men in her life, yet none of this is apparent in her portrayal, giving Purefoy and Harry Haden-Paton little to work with.  It is a credit to both of these actors that we are still engaged as much as we are.   To coin a phrase, she lit up the stage … every time she left it.  It seems incredible that a director of Nunn’s experience would not have spotted this omission.  Curiously, we had the same issue with his casting of Scarlett O’Hara in the musical ‘Gone with the Wind’.

One more niggle – in such an otherwise traditional production (we mean that in a good way), what was the purpose of the projections as the planes took off?  The dialogue with sound effects surely paints a vivid enough picture and the illusion is broken as soon as the planes fill the screen.

Overall, however, we warmly recommend this production – go and your patience will be rewarded.

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2 Responses to Chocks Away: ‘Flare Path’ lights the way at the Theatre Royal Haymarket

  1. I quite liked the projections of the planes taking off – it was atmospheric and felt almost threateningly real. Agree about Sienna Miller’s portrayal – I thought her performance wasn’t as good as the rest of the flawless and superb cast. A diary piece in yesterday’s Evening Standard, however, suggests that on press night, mainstream critics loved her performance.

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    • rageoffstage says:

      Thanks for your comment. We had a look at the Evening Standard piece and noticed a comment there about curtain calls – we seem to recall that the bows were taken by the entire cast without singling anybody out. Never having been to a press night we don’t know if the form is different, but it is intriguing – we were certainly applauding for the whole cast, not for Sienna Miller. Still, we await the reviews with anticipation

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