The tensions and the truths of Flare Path

Flare Path rehearsal - preview by Kevin Anderson
Flare Path rehearsal - preview by Kevin Anderson

The roar of Airbourne planes will scarcely have faded before one of the great wartime dramas lights up the Devonshire Park stage.

Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path opens on Tuesday (18th) with a new production - writes Kevin Anderson.

It will be no flight of fancy. Rattigan himself flew missions as a gunner on RAF bombers. He knew the strains, the terrors, the physical and emotional demands at first hand - tensions at the heart of Flare Path.

Most fascinating is the story that on one flight, Rattigan’s plane was attacked and damaged, and to gain height the crew had to strip the aircraft to its bare parts and throw everything out of the windows. Rattigan actually had the original, unfinished script of Flarepath with him in the plane – and of course he held on to it most tightly of all.

And the production is a real capture for Eastbourne Theatres: Flare Path actually opens its run here, ahead of a major UK tour. After initial rehearsals in London, the cast has been based in Eastbourne for the past fortnight, immersed in that fascinating process of lifting a play from the page. It’s the first revival of Terence Rattigan’s classic since Trevor Nunn’s fine West End staging four years ago.

Set in 1942 Flare Path tells the story of former actress Patricia, the wife of RAF pilot Teddy, whose marriage is tested to the limits by the surprise arrival of Patricia’s ex‐lover and Hollywood idol Peter Kyle. An unexpected and dangerous mission over Germany puts Patricia at the centre of an emotional conflict as unpredictable as the war in the skies.

In the central role of Patricia is award-winning Olivia Hallinan, whose CV brims with major TV and stage roles: Lark Rise to Candleford, Sugar Rush, Girls in Love, Torchwood, and My Family.

I caught up with Olivia mid-way through the rehearsals. “It’s all falling into place. The script is just amazing, and we’re constantly discovering things. It’s the sort of story that allows the actors to explore the relationships and the depth of characters. Rattigan’s writing is wonderful: there is so much room for the actors to explore what’s going on underneath the lines. This is such a fascinating time period, because of the circumstances people found themselves in.”

Now, if you are an Airbourne enthusiast you will be expecting authenticity. The uniforms, the language, the military protocol must all be correct.

To prove the point, I tracked down Tony Green, the military adviser to the production.

Tony should know. His own RAF service incudes tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and he has an MA in Military History, and he has been dropping in rehearsals from the start. How does he set about the task?

“It’s very easy to present a heap of dry facts, but that’s not going to help the actors. Instead I let them plie me with questions. I love working with actors because the questions they ask are so pertinent – how would an air crew be picked? Just for their trades or for their ability to interact with each other? Would a sergeant really socialise with the officers?

Tony didn’t take them up for a spin? “No, but we turned the rehearsal room into a Wellington bomber, and we ‘took them on an op’! One of the cast managed to shoot down a Messerschmitt…

It promises to be an exciting, absorbing fortnight. Catch it at the Devonshire Park from Tuesday!