Rattigan had first-hand experience of flying Coastal Command as a gunnery officer in WW2. The “flare path” of the title is the guiding trail of lights set out for bombers as they take off to do their deadly work over German territory.
We’re reminded in a programme note by Sir Max Hastings that this destruction was in retaliation for the Blitzkrieg by Nazi Germany. The language and customs of survival in wartime have become habitual to the civilians and RAF personnel at the Falcon Hotel. But Peter Kyle (Leon Ockenden), a famous film actor from the USA, is quickly proved to be a tactless outsider. His unexpected arrival creates emotional turmoil for Patricia, glamorous wife of Flight Lieutenant Graham. Does Patricia need a metaphorical flare path to guide her?
The plot of the play derives from the interweaving of two sources of tension: will Teddy Graham, Gunner Dusty Miller and Flying Officer Count Skriczevinski return safely from the unexpected bombing raid they’re called out upon tonight; and where do Patricia’s love and loyalties finally lie? This is more than a patriotic tale of Air Force heroism, and more than a story of romance and betrayal, but comprises both.
I loved the witty and sensitive performances of the whole cast, from beginning to end, from the sturdy disapproving patriotism of Stephanie Jacob as the hotel owner to Olivia Warren’s strong portrayal of Patricia, a haughty “glamour-puss” who reveals unexpected emotional depths. As “Gloria” Swanson the Squadron Leader, Philip Franks gives a delightful performance. His mime of himself as a “flightless lieutenant” at an otherwise tense moment in the evening is unforgettable.
The emotional strength of this play lies in Rattigan’s exploration of the nature of love, duty, weakness and heroism. Justin Audibert’s direction and Rattigan’s dialogue allow these perennial themes to be aired with a fresh humour and lightness of touch.
Perhaps the most obvious sign of the play’s original function as a morale-booster in war-torn UK is the final scene, which might be criticised for avoiding realism and tragic possibilities. But it’s performed with such gusto that it seems an appropriate end to this dynamic production. To my own surprise, I’ve become a Rattigan fan.
"Flare Path" is at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford until Friday 28th November.