Wartime creates extraordinary circumstances and calls for exceptional behaviour. Human sacrifice, in terms of valour, heroism, love and fortitude, is pushed to the limit. Terence Rattigan, who served in the RAF as a tail gunner, knew only too well the sacrifices made by both his colleagues and the loved ones they left behind.
So there’s a lot of authenticity behind Flight Lieutenant Rattigan’s Flare Path, the stage play loosely based on his own war experiences, that has just started the 2016 leg of its UK tour and which is running at Oxford Playhouse this week.
Flare Path is beautifully evocative, a tense drama following the actions of a brave aircrew on a secret mission that’s entangled with a passionate love story – an awkward love triangle between a handsome bomber pilot, his glamorous actress wife and the Hollywood heartthrob who threatens to steal her back.
The story is set in the lounge of a hotel being used to put up personnel from the nearby RAF base. In walks a tall, dark handsome stranger with a ready smile and an easy-going manner. He’s debonair and terribly charismatic.
Matinee idol Peter Kyle (West End star Lynden Edwards oozing charm) claims that he’s just passing by but it turns out, by an amazing coincidence, that another guest, the wife of Flight Lieutenant Tedddy Graham, was an actress who had previously appeared in one of his Broadway plays. Gosh, what are the odds eh?
It turns out that Kyle and Mrs Graham, known by her stage name of Patricia Warren, were “an item” back over the pond, even living together for a while, before she fled back to England and met and married her young flyer after a whirlwind romance.
Now Kyle wants her back and is prepared to do anything to get her. He’s getting old (41!) and is facing being thrown on the professional scrapheap. Vanity drives him to find someone with whom to spend his dotage.
At first Pat (Hedydd Dylan looks very glamorous in the period dresses) seems keen on the idea – but has she got the courage to tell her adoring Teddy (a very dashing Daniel Fraser), who is besotted with her, especially when the poor cuckolded mutt must fly another dangerous mission?
There are some lovely supporting performances from Graham Seed as “Gloria”, “wingless wonder” Squadron Leader Swanson, who acts as surrogate parent to his flyboys, and Claire Andreadis as Doris, a flyer’s wife elevated from buxom blonde barmaid to the wife of a Polish Count. There’s a lot of heart in her performance.
William Reay’s turn as Flying Officer Count Skriczevinsky, is delightfully comic with a lot of mileage made with a standing gag about his poor English.
Jamie Hogarth and Polly Hughes, as henpecked tail gunner Dusty Miller and his anxious wife Maudie, play the drama’s working class couple (every Rattigan play must have one) and they’re delightful. You can’t help rooting for them and hoping that none of our brave boys go missing in action.
Flare Path is an engrossing story that’s strong on bravery (and perfect wartime propaganda) but it’s seriously hampered by being constrained as a stage production.
We hear the roar of the Lancaster bombers (and sound designer Dominic Bilkey does a great job in making our seats rattle), but must rely on Gloria and Doris to do their best describing the take-offs, landings and airfield disasters. It fails to convince but there’s no way around it.
Nevertheless, director Justin Audibert delivers a well told, and well-acted, story. Lynden Edwards’ rather smarmy film star would, in any other drama, get our sympathy – if only Fraser’s heroic pilot wasn’t so dashed lovely. How can Hedydd Dylan even contemplate leaving him?
A final mention for Audrey Palmer’s superbly indomitable hotelier, Mrs Oakes. You get the feeling that this terrifying woman immediately sees right through our Holllywood interloper. Or is she this scornful with all her guests?
Flare Path runs at the Oxford Playhouse until Saturday.
February 2–6, Oxford Playhouse February 10–13, Buxton Opera House February 15–20, Theatre Royal Windsor February 23–27, The Grand Theatre, Blackpool February 29-March 5, Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds March 7-12, Mercury Theatre, Colchester March 15-19, Aberdeen His Majesty’s Theatre March 22-26, Theatr Clwyd, Mold March 29-April 2, Wycombe Swan April 5–9, Orchard Theatre, Dartford April 12-16, Darlington Civic Theatre April 19-23, Derby Theatre April 25-30, Birmingham Repertory Theatre May 3-7, York Theatre Royal.
Terence Rattigan uses his own wartime experiences to good effect in Flare Path, an engrossing story of love and courage among our brave RAF flyers in World War II.