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Flare Path

Sienna Miller, James Purefoy, and Sheridan Smith lead a fine cast in Trevor Nunn's polished production of Terrence Rattigan's rarely-staged 1942 play.

By London
James Purefoy and Sienna Miller
in Flare Path
(© Johan Persson)
James Purefoy and Sienna Miller
in Flare Path
(© Johan Persson)
The centenary celebrations of Terence Rattigan's birth continue with Trevor Nunn's polished if slightly plodding staging of his rarely-done 1942 play, Flare Path, at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. While Nunn's production is nowhere near as revelatory as Thea Sharrock's dazzling staging of After the Dance at the National Theatre last year, it is a solid piece that successfully tugs on the heartstrings, thanks in part to a strong cast led by Sienna Miller and Sheridan Smith.

The play is set over the course of a long, emotionally turbulent night at a Lincolnshire hotel where a group of RAF officers are staying. Patricia (Miller), a glamorous if small-time actress, is in the first year of marriage to dashing Flight Lieutenant Teddy Graham (Harry Hadden-Paton).

Their weekend together is interrupted by the arrival of film star Peter Kyle (James Purefoy) with whom it soon becomes clear Patricia is having an affair. Although initially she is willing to leave her husband, her decision becomes more fraught and complicated as the night progresses and she comes to better understand her husband's need for her.

Hadden-Paton gives a plausible performance as the charismatic and chipper young officer, who beneath the surface is only barely holding himself together; the regular brushes with death and the need to maintain a controlled nonchalance in front of the men in his charge are clearly exerting a toll on his health. Miller's performance is, by necessity, reserved and unshowy, her turmoil internalized.

The work's richest -- and funniest -- role is Doris (Smith), a former barmaid married to a Polish Count. It's a part that practically seems tailor-made for Smith and allows the actress to balance resilience and an endearing self-knowledge with a touching vulnerability. Joe Armstrong and Clive Wood also make the most of their somewhat clichéd roles as the chirpy Cockney Sergeant and the kindly Squadron Leader 'Gloria' Swanson.

Unfortunately, Patricia's dilemma never really triggers that much excitement and, in many ways, is almost secondary to Rattigan's depiction of the readjustments the war required people to make: the knowledge that every goodbye could potentially be the last, every parting final. It's the potent details, the depiction of these women waiting stoically through the night for news of their husbands' return, which really strikes a chord -- and Rattigan expertly conveys the mutually understood reality beneath the military banter and the celebratory sing-songs.

Stephen Brimson-Lewis' set is almost too grand, sometimes dwarfing the characters, but the two-tier divide allows for an effective climax to the first act, as by means of dramatic projections audience members are able to share in the tension as the aircraft take flight and soar into the night.


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