“Supposing there is an ‘after the war’”
One of the unexpected highlights in the raft of productions that marked Terence Rattigan’s centenary year in 2011 was Trevor Nunn’s Flare Path at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Previously unheralded, it emerged as an understated masterclass in repressed emotion, wonderfully enlivened by Sheridan Smith’s Olivier-winning supporting role. The Original Theatre Company’s touring version of the show, directed by Justin Audibert, thus has a lot to live up to to equal its success.
And sadly, it never quite manages it. Part of this lies in the fact that it isn’t the most thrilling piece of writing. Set exclusively in a 1942 hotel lobby close to an airbase, it follows a group of fighter pilots as they wait to be called onto the next raid with their loved ones watching on anxiously. Naturally, their loved ones aren’t always the ones they’re married to and the emotional crux of the play centres on a love triangle between Patricia, her airman husband Teddy and her Hollywood star ex Peter.
This trio don’t quite manage to get the passions burning to ignite the production at large. Leon Ockenden feels too young to be a faded movie star and Olivia Hallinan struggles to connect with him, not helped by difficult characterisation that is hard to truly humanise. Alastair Whatley fares the best as the shell-shocked pilot, Rattigan’s own war experiences feeding into a much stronger role, slowly coming to realise his wife has never really loved him all that much.
Equally, Siobhan O’Kelly needs to do more to overcome Rattigan’s instinctive patronisation of the working classes if she is to give Doris, the role Smith played so vibrantly, more than simpering sentimentality. She’s well on the way, her chemistry with Adam Best’s Polish count a tender thing to observe and their burgeoning relationship could well grow into something most affecting. Philip Frank’s ever-chirpy squadron leader manages to capture something of the period though.
Hayley Grindle’s design works in a lot for a touring set, including a neat reference to the title as further helped by Alex Wardle’s lighting. But for all that it looks the part, these still waters don’t run anywhere deep enough to really stir the soul and take flight.