This was a stiflingly sultry evening at the Unicorn Theatre – and heaven help the poor actors, some of whom were buttoned up in RAF service dress – for the production by Abingdon Drama Club of Terence Rattigan's Flare Path from 1942. The play isn't performed too often these days, whereas The Winslow Boy, The Browning Version, French Without Tears et al. remain mainstays of the British repertoire. The setting is the lounge of The Falcon Hotel near to an RAF Bomber Command airfield, to which aircrew officers and sergeants repair in their off-duty hours and where at which their wives and visitors are temporarily lodged. A love triangle forms the heart of the narrative, and it plays out in parallel or in contrast to the other marital relationships that flower or wither around it.
principal point of interest these days in this material is the principal theme,
which I found of considerable interest. In a nutshell, Rattigan's purpose is to
show the competing claims of private and public emotion and duty; the
calculating of their relative importance in time of battle (in 1942 Britain was
still losing the war, and the Battle of Stalingrad was still in the balance),
and how the particular demands of wartime can legitimately trump private
passions once individuals have formed a clear view of their position in the
grand scheme of things.
It may be that the setting-out of the theme is a bit more satisfactory than its playing out. While I had a plausible impression from this production by director Lin Crowley and a numerous backstage team of a hotel and its inhabitants carrying on their lives adjacent to vital events just next door, the play's tone was resolutely even until a surge in Act III. Rattigan prefers to downplay the emotional charge that might have been wrung large from his material, with the anticipated crisis point arriving late-on and in a form that's easily anticipated by the audience. I've seen it said that this makes the play all the more effective, and there's much merit in keeping melodrama at bay, but drama does lie at the expected centre of a play, and if that remains resolutely simmering rather than boiling, then its lasting impression is also liable to be of the muted sort.
Costumes and the women's hairstyles were nicely in period, and so, with one exception, is the single set designed also by Lin Crowley – three-piece suite, 40s-era radio playing Radio Newsreel on the Home Service and Victorian tiled fireplace, though the presence of three fluorescent, Habitat-type cushions seemed a bit of an aberration. The playing space is left sensibly uncluttered; this little stage is easily clogged by a surfeit of actors or props. We were treated to the expected sound effects of droning aero engines and the odd explosion and air-raid siren, a couple of times conveying fear almost to the extent of panic.
The general challenge for the cast is to demonstrate plausibly the ordinary, even trivial actions of daily life proceeding against the immediate proximity of fraught action, violent death and extreme fear on the ground and in the air, and I thought they collectively managed this. Of the individual players, several caught my eye. John Hawkins' British actor nearing the end of a Hollywood studio contract and living in an actorish bubble while Britain burned was an effective portrayal of self-centredness. His reading of a letter left behind by a Polish flier for his wife was exceptionally good in voice and gesture, and this skill was again demonstrated when confronted by the strong emotion pouring out of his lover's husband. As that husband, a Flight Lieutenant not far off the end of his tether after 17 flying ops, Dave Cassar was persuasive in showing the emotion bubbling under his perky, brittle exterior. Tony Green was a sturdily matter-of-fact rear-gunner, a strong foil to the more highly-strung characters around him, and Jon Crowley as the squadron adjutant was skilful in both movement and voice, a model of how to perform the difficult task of bringing interest to what would much more easily have been a dull role.
This was an interesting essay by the ADC on material that has a lot more going for it than merely being a period piece, and all the more worthwhile for its relative rarity on stage these days. Recommended, and particularly so if you go armed with plenty of iced water or even a fan!