Anyone watching this play can be forgiven for a sense that it should be being performed in black and white as part of a double bill at the local Odeon cinema, such is the impact that the film version, The Way to the Stars” made.
Written, and first performed in 1942, by Terrence Rattigan, it tells the tale of a love triangle set in a hotel by a bomber base in World War Two. Rattigan’s contemporaneous wartime service in the RAF lends the writing an obvious sense of authenticity and immediacy.
The context in which it was written is an integral part of the piece. Remote air force bases in rural locations meant socialising was at a premium, which combined with an appalling death rate for bomber crew, resulted in romance being consummated fast, with tomorrow not necessarily a pressing concern. I have had the privilege of going inside a Lancaster bomber, although large on the outside, inside, it is cramped and claustrophobic. Spending several hours over enemy territory, freezing at 30,000 feet, being shot at, must have been terrifying.
Film and theatre were amongst the few sources of wartime entertainment. Inevitably a film about the war, in order to be successful, needed to be positive about the war effort and uplifting in its sentiment. Flare Path does just that. To modern eyes it may appear a little predictable and hackneyed, at the time it was just what the population needed, enjoying Winston Churchill’s endorsement.
The love triangle takes in fading film star Peter Kyle, an old lover Patricia Warren, and her husband Teddy. Lynden Edwards is superb as Kyle, louche, smug and determined to win his girl back. Daniel Fraser is outstanding opposite him as Teddy, brave, vulnerable and unaware of his wife’s past. Hedydd Dylan oozes forties glamour as officers’ wife Warren, tall, elegant and initially flighty, before events force her to reassess her relationship with her new husband.
But this is no downbeat angst riven tearjerker. William Reay has the most fun as a Polish Flying Officer whose English is still basic, Audrey Palmer excels as Mrs Oakes, the formidable, colourful, Hotel Keeper .
Rattigan’s writing is a delight. The RAF slang is perfect, the comedy skilfully interwoven amongst the drama with several laugh out loud moments. The Pole provides not only much of the comedy, he also signally represents those from abroad fighting the Nazi’s, having suffered their own losses to the German war machine. The gunnery sergeant (Jamie Hogarth) and his wife, enjoyably played by Polly Hughes, provide a slice of working class life in roles which hint at an upstairs/downstairs theme, but which are neatly counterbalanced by a stronger sense that everyone was in this together.
Particular mention should be made of Dominic Bilkey, the sound designer who has the vital role of introducing the distinctive sound of the passing aircraft, a sound which is unusually warm and reassuring. The incidental background music pre show, post- show and at the interval is similarly evocative.
Director Justin Audibert has done a fine job with this Original Theatre Company production which provides an accessible and rewarding entrée into Rattigan’s work. Everything is understated. The valour of the airmen, the strength of the bonds between the protagonists, and the fortitude of the non- combatants, all pricked with self- effacing humour, or nonchalant asides.
Flare Path runs till 23/4 and continues on tour.
This review first appeared in Behind the Arras, abridged, where a comprehensive collection of reviews from the best of Midlands Theatre, from a range of reviewers, is available.