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Theatre review: Flare Path 
25th-Apr-2011 11:15 pm
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While the Old Vic have been marking Terence Rattigan's centenary with his final play, Trevor Nunn at the TRH has looked earlier in the playwright's career. Written while Rattigan was serving on RAF bombers flying raids over Germany, Flare Path is named after the row of lights that help pilots take off and land, and aims to similarly illuminate what it was like for the airmen. 1941 at the Falcon Hotel where several of the men are staying; a number of their wives are visiting at the weekend when they're sent on a last-minute (but not entirely unexpected) mission. So over the three acts we see the anticipation of the mission; the wives unable to sleep as they wait for the men to return; and finally the reunion with those who do survive to fight another day.

Technically the star name is Sienna Miller as Pat, the wife of pilot Teddy (Harry Hadden-Paton.) An actress, she's paid a visit by her lover, fading movie star Peter (James Purefoy) with the intention of their running away together. But as the night takes a tragic turn, they're faced with the bigger picture of the war and the emotions they thought they were experiencing seem petty in comparison. So it's perhaps not so surprising that this central pair make less of an impact than might be expected and I'm not sure I can entirely blame the actors for this, as their grand romance is actually meant to end up a damp squib. In fact Purefoy has his best scene with Sheridan Smith - who unsurprisingly is the real star of the show as The Countess, a former barmaid married to a refugee Count who flies with an all-Polish squadron and speaks very little English. When the Count's missing, presumed dead, Peter translates the letter he's left behind to The Countess in what is the production's standout scene, mainly thanks to Smith's understated reactions. But it's a strong ensemble cast that includes Joe Armstrong as the rear gunner, the most dangerous job (and the one Rattigan himself had in the RAF.) Sarah Crowden's humourless landlady gets some scene-stealing moments, while Clive Wood as the squadron leader and Mark Dexter as the Count lend strong support.

The programme mentions the controversy over these bombing missions in subsequent years but Nunn's production doesn't get bogged down in trying to question what the airmen are actually doing; a play about the War and premiered during the War, inevitably Flare Path comes out in support of the Allied airmen but without actually feeling like jingoism. It's a respectful look at their lives that acknowledges the effect these constant brushes with death must have on their sanity, while embracing the enthusiasm for life in their off-time. A very strong production, running at just under 3 hours but feeling shorter.

Flare Path by Terence Rattigan is booking until the 11th of June at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
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