Love in time of war: a classic theme is translated grippingly to the Devonshire Park stage this week in Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path.
Tuesday night’s premiere, the very first performance of a major UK tour, was warmly received by the large audience.
Director Justin Audibert, with a super team of designers, has produced an authentic set full of clever touches – not least the intriguing angled white lines stretching across the floor. We are soon to discover their purpose, as brilliant sound and lighting have the audience almost cowering under the seats.
Manners and conventions are inescapable in Rattigan. This is emotion contained, distilled and carefully understated. Stoicism and forced humour as pilots depart for life-or-death missions.
You need to stay the course with this play because the characters and relationships are ever unfolding, and beautifully played. Surprisingly perhaps, there are often lines to chuckle at: either a gentle, rather British humour – deliciously captured by Stephanie Jacob’s hotel owner and Philip Franks’s squadron-leader.
Fading movie star Peter – Patricia’s adulterous lover – returns unexpectedly. Leon Ockenden’s portrayal is suave enough, but as the intruder in this close-knit RAF community, his is the trickiest role and perhaps slightly underwritten.
By contrast, there is amazing chemistry between Patricia and Teddy. At first glance, Olivia Hallinan has that porcelain 1940s beauty, grace, and a slight detachment, but inside she is burning. Alastair Whatley’s Teddy is brilliant: initially he is Teddy, nice but dim, but slowly he reveals a complex swirl of fear, fragility, heroism, devotion. This is humanity, flaws and all.
The pivotal second-half scene between Hallinan and Whatley is magnificent: acting easily worthy of the West End. Indeed, the standard right across the cast is uniformly excellent. Simon Darwen’s chipper sergeant has a down to earth heroism. Siobhan O’Kelly is a wonderful barmaid turned Countess – by virtue of marrying the aristocratic Polish pilot Johnny, endearingly played by Adam Best. Theirs is a truly touching partnership, dragged by war to the very edge of tragedy.