Richmond Theatre, Surrey
“I was very moved by the play,” said Winston Churchill. “It’s a masterpiece of understatement. But we are rather good at that, aren’t we?”
It would have been very hard for audiences not to be moved. Terence Rattigan was an air-gunner in the RAF during World War 2 and Flare Path is based on his experiences at Biggin Hill.
The play opened in December 1942 with the full approval of the Air Ministry. The cast included Adrienne Allen as the countess, Phyllis Calvert as the actress, Kathleen Harrison as the sergeant’s cockney wife, the 21-year-old Jack Watling as young bomber pilot and the teenage George Cole as the waiter.
The play was directed by Anthony Asquith with whom Rattigan had worked on the propaganda film The Day Will Dawn with whom he would work again in 1945 in The Way to the Stars, the definitive British air war film starring John Mills and Michael Redgrave and an exemplary example of Rattigan’s famous understatement.
Binkie Beaumont, the producer, had had doubts about Flare Path’s commercial success, feeling that West End audiences when they went to the theatre wanted to forget the war and would prefer something more frivolous and escapist.
His doubts proved unfounded. The play ran for 670 performances. Rattigan has caught the wartime mood and wartime condition perfectly. The comedy and pathos were evenly balanced. The public ignored the lukewarm reviews.
The play, a tribute to Bomber Command, is a propaganda piece and the up-beat ending has to be understood within a war context when the nation needed its morale to be boosted.
Bomber Command knew the reality. An airman who embarked on a tour of 30 trips to Germany knew he had less than an even chance of surviving it. Some 56,000 men, more than half of all those who flew, died.
The action is set in the residents’ lounge of a hotel close to a RAF bomber base in Lincolnshire from which the nightly raids over Germany take place.
The main story-line is a triangle: an actress (Olivia Hallinan) has to choose whether to stay with her husband, a bomber pilot (Alastair Whatley) who has lost his nerve, or to leave him for her ex-lover (Leon Ockenden), a Hollywood actor whose career is about to go down the drain.
The knowledge that Rattigan’s own lover had just left him before Flare Path opened gives the triangle an added interest.
The character, however, who always makes the most impact, is the barmaid (Siobhan O’Kelly) who married a Polish count and is now a countess. It is role which has been successfully played by Liz Fraser and more recently by Sheridan Smith in Trevor Nunn’s major revival at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, in 2011.
I hope somebody will revive Rattigan’s wartime farce, While the Sun Shine, which premièred in 1943. It ran for over a thousand performances and has not had a slap-up revival since.
Flare Path is directed by Justin Audibert and will be touring Bath, Malvern, Exeter, Cambridge, Salisbury, Winchester, Ipswich, Coventry, Liverpool, Southend and Guildford.
Reviewer: Robert Tanitch