Flare Path, by Terence Rattigan, was written during WWII. Rattigan was a rear gunner (a tail end Charlie) who went out on offensives with Bomber Command so he knew what he was talking about when he wrote this play. The planes flew at night: the flare path was the row of lights illuminated when the planes were due to depart to show the pilot the runway. It could also show a hovering Messerschmitt where a vulnerable English plane was about to take off so even before the mission had properly begun, they could be in danger. More than half the young men who flew with Bomber Command died: thus when a man started a 'tour' of 30 trips he was more likely to die than to survive.
Throw into this mix a movie star and you have the setting for this play. The matinee idols of the day, the Clark Gables and Douglas Fairbanks and swashbuckling Errol Flynns relied, arguably, on their good looks more than their acting abilities, so growing old was something to be feared. In Flare Path, the play opens with the arrival of ageing screen idol Peter Kyle (Lynden Edwards), who causes a stir among the women, in particular newly married Patricia (Hedydd Dylan). As the other characters slowly arrive on the scene, the underlying tensions boil up and threaten to erupt – until the airmen are unexpectedly called out on an urgent mission. Everyone is suddenly faced with the prospect of being killed in the case of the men, or being widowed in the case of the women, and this reality concentrates their minds and makes them see more clearly what is important.
The play is of its day, a period piece with somewhat stereotypical characters and the language is old-fashioned to our modern ear. The actors do a fine job of portraying this period: Hedydd Dylan as Patricia, in particular, shows the conflicting pressures a woman could be under in those dangerous times. The Countess Doris (Claire Andreadis) seems to be a ditsy blonde – does her Polish Count husband (wonderfully played by William Reay) really love her or will he drop her the moment the war is over? The count's poor command of English and the grumpiness of the landlady (Audrey Palmer) are the only, albeit gentle, humour in the play. The return of Flight Lieutenant Graham (Daniel Fraser) with his gunner Dusty (Jamie Hogarth) is underplayed but we gradually learn that it was a difficult and dangerous journey and Graham's confession to his wife shows some of the strains that he is under. The relatively simple set (the lounge of a hotel where they are all staying) is unobtrusive but very effective and the roar of the engines at moments gives you an idea of how scary the time could be. The play seems to be about loves and relationships, but the war intrudes into every corner of their lives and affects the decisions they make.
It is good to remember, always, the damage that war does to all those it touches.