“I was very moved by the play,” said Prime Minister Winston Churchill. “It’s a masterpiece of understatement.
But we are rather good at that, aren’t we?”
Lincolnshire, 1941. Home to RAF bomber squadrons, flying high-risk nightly sorties, deep into German territory. At this stage of World War II, the survival rate for bomber crew members was 50%. But what was the toll on the people they left on the ground, night after night: crew mates, wives, lovers, friends? The people who lived under the flight path, counting the crews out into the night sky, and anxiously waiting to count them back in as dawn broke?
Flare Path is a moving tribute to the heroism of the young bomber crews who flew hazardous overnight missions during World War 2 - and the bravery of the loved ones who waited for them to return each morning. Based on his own experiences as a young Flight Lieutenant, Rattigan's classic ensemble drama deftly wraps the wartime tensions around a poignant love triangle that pits patriotic duty against personal desire.
This production marks the centenary of the founding of the Royal Air Force in 1918. It has particular local relevance because during the war, Baginton Airport was used as a Polish bomber base, and part of the local churchyard is devoted to Polish airmen who lost their lives flying from there.
We are proud to dedicate this production to Geoff Bennett, the founder of the Criterion Theatre and who from 1941 served as RAF air crew member and navigator throughout the war.
There will be smoking on stage under The Smoke-free (Exemptions and Vehicles) Regulations 2007.
Flare Path is a classic example of the stiff-lipped understatement that is the trademark of his nonetheless impeccably crafted plays. And Rattigan was well qualified to write it, having served as a tail-gunnerin the RAF.
There’s a scene where Sergeant Miller (a former bus-conductor as it happens) is asked what it’s like being a tail-gunner. “All right,” he says through his alter-ego Michael Hammond. “A bitcold.” A bit dangerous too, one imagines. But nobody would admit that in the residents’ lounge of a small hotel on the edge of a Lincolnshire airfield in 1941. Particularly when there were ladies present.
It was all about maintaining a veneer of civilistion at a time when civilisation itself was under the direst of threats.
Beneath the surface of that veneer, there are all sorts of tensions. Tensest of all is a love triangle involving a Hollywood star back in his home country, his actress lover and her husband who is risking his neck at regular intervals – in real life rather than on-screen.
Ted McGowan can be proud of his Criterion debut as Flight-Lieutenant Graham. He puts on a good show does Teddy ale-fellow-well-met, rarely without a bottle of red-label Bass in his hand and a forced smile on his face. Until, that is, his underlying terrors make a brief but touching appearance.
Anne Houston is imperious as a haughty hotel manageress of her time and Cathryn Bowler is convincing as a Polish Countess with a Lincolnshire accent. Well, she was a humble barmaid until she married a Polish airman who just happened to be a Count.
Three hours (albeit with two intervals) seem to fly by – all too literally at times as the roar of aircraft engines intrude menacingly on the hotel lounge.
Flare Path is a reminder of the sacrifices made by Rattigan’s tight-lipped generation and the freedoms they guaranteed for angry young men and women to rant at will for generations to come.
Flare Path is on at the Criterion until Saturday July 7.
Review by Peter McGarry available at: