Despite being proclaimed 'a masterpiece' by Winston Churchill on its premiere in 1942, Terence Rattigan's Flare Path fell out of favour once the dark clouds of war lifted and our nation began to feel ill at ease with the decisions and actions of Bomber Command. It was not until 2011, and Trevor Nunn's revival with the starriest of starry casts including James Purefoy, Sienna Miller and national treasure, Sheridan Smith, that the play received a new lease of life.
Now, The Original Theatre Company have cast several faces familiar to cosy Sunday night TV period drama and has taken the piece on a nationwide tour - making much use of the wartime PM's glowing review - and is currently based at the Liverpool Playhouse until this Saturday.
Flare Path is based on Terence Rattigan's own experiences as a 'tail end Charlie' in the RAF and there's much to say about the theatrical world he inhabited as well, as a story of love, lust and courage plays out.
Ostensibly the bomber operation shapes the backdrop of the piece - quite literally too, thanks to designer Hayley Grindle's expansive picture window placed centre stage - as the foreground is occupied with the tale of the wives left behind in a Lincolnshire hotel who must endure a nail biting, tense wait for their husbands to return from their nighttime raids to the airfield beyond the window.
At the centre of the play is a love triangle between actress Patricia Warren (Larkrise to Candleford and Sugar Rush star Olivia Hallinan, a flame haired porcelain doll of a woman, delicate and fragile and with the impressive ability to cry on cue) her stereotypical good egg of a husband, pilot Teddy Graham (Alastair Whatley, The Original Theatre Company's artistic director) and Mr Selfridge's Leon Ockenden as Peter Kyle, a pencil 'tached, salt and pepper haired fading matinee idol, returning from Hollywood (safely away from the bombs and fighting a'la James Mason and Rex Harrison) and who has history, and unfinished business, with Patricia. In hurried, chaste conversations away from prying ears we soon learn that Peter and Patricia still love one another and that Peter has arrived to take his lover away from her nice but boring hubby. But when the crew is called out again to perform a night raid, Patricia is left to reconsider her love for Peter, her marriage and her outlook on life.
Unfortunately, this central love triangle hits a bit of trouble in the convincing stakes, primarily because the Hallinan and Ockendon actor characters always feel like they are acting. It's clear Rattigan has something to say about that, as the script discusses the real/unreal sense we have of one another in a rather charming scene between Patricia and Teddy in which he reveals that he plays up his rather doltish demeanour to his men to keep their spirits up, but the ultimate message doesn't entirely come off - not helped by Ockendon's rather stagey, actorly performance. My mother who I took along to see the play pointed out that he always seemed to be shouting, whilst other actors projected their vocal range effortlessly. I'm inclined to agree but I'm left to wonder if it was a conscious decision to play it so mannered - to hark back to the actors of the day - or was it just, well a lack of skill?
Fortunately, Rattigan had a real skill at crafting beautiful supporting characters and the relationships between the others is certainly convincing. Siobhan O'Kelly delivers an absolutely first rate, engaging convincing performance as Doris, the former barmaid turned Countess Skriczevinsky (or 'scratch-me-bum-ski' as she puts it at one point) whose good humour and often salt of the earth manner slips away as she waits patiently for her Polish pilot husband, the Count (Adam Best, absolutely charming and very funny) to return from the raid, displaying a deeply affecting measure of both fragility and strength. There's also Simon Darwen's chirpy cockney tail gunner Dusty Miller, and his pragmatic wife Maudie (Shvorne Marks) providing an equal helping of comic relief and tenderness.
Performers slightly more on the periphery, but no less endearing, are veteran Philip Franks as the grey haired, non flying squadron leader, clucking paternally around both his boys and the ladies left behind (and whose projection certainly impressed my mum) a bustling tut-tutting hotel landlady played by Stephanie Jacobs who became something of an audience favourite, though the comic relief deployed here was a little obvious, and a performance by the understudy Holly Smith as the landlady's daughter who works as the hotel waitress. This part is actually written for a boy, Percy, and is usually played by James Cooney, but it worked just as well here with the gender swap...and would have worked even better had the cast used the substitute name of Betty, as listed in the programme. They didn't; they continued to refer to the young woman as Percy, which I'm presuming was a slip on someone's part that they, as an ensemble, decided to carry on with.
Those looking for a piece about the horrors of war will be severely disappointed by Flare Path; it's a play very much of its time and, though it deals very much with the tragedies and dangers of war and the emotional fallout that stems from them, its easy to see why Churchill claimed to be so moved, as it would sit perfectly well as a strong propaganda piece. But it would be unfair to dismiss Rattigan's work or characterisation of the bryclreem boys as dated or stereotypical, as this was arguably one of the first instances that we saw what we have now come to call the stiff upper lip cliche. Ultimately, I found Flare Path to be a very charming play, beautifully staged and blessed with some strong performances in some gorgeous vintage clothing. If you're the kind of person who enjoys cosying up on damp wintry afternoons with an old black and white war movie on TV (and indeed one such film, The Way To The Stars, is a reworking of Flare Path) then this is the play for you - tinkety tonk!