As Remembrance Day approaches, this is an opportune time to revive Terrence Rattigan’s tale of wartime bravery, Flare Path, now on at Jericho Arts Centre. Set in 1942, the terror, turmoil and tension conveyed by the play are heightened by Rattigan’s own experience as a tail gunner in the Royal Air Force (RAF) during WWII.
As is characteristic of all his works, emotions are understated and language is deliberately formal, yet the story brims with the ache and conflict between personal passion and devout duty.
[Yoshié Bancroft as Patricia Graham, Paul Herbert as Squadron-Leader Swanson]
Near a RAF base, several gunners hope to meet their wives for a much-deserved respite at the Falcon Hotel. The imperious proprietor, Mrs. Oakes, looks after her motley crew of patrons with help from her young waiter, Percy.
The patrons include a Polish Count and his Countess, Sergeant Dusty Miller and his wife Maudie, Flight-Lieutenant Teddy Graham and his wife Patricia, and Squadron-Leader Swanson.
The Countess playfully chides her husband’s poor English but their love runs pure and deep despite the language barrier. In Rattigan’s plays, what is not said is often more profound than what is. The constantly fretting Maudie gives Dusty a mocked reputation amongst his peers as a “whipped” man. But in private moments their care for each other is revealed in loving conversations.
Teddy adores Patricia and cannot believe that the beautiful actress married him after only a week-long whirlwind romance. Patricia, however, was still in love with her former lover, Hollywood star Peter Kyle, when she married Teddy and is having an affair with him.
Uncomfortable with his waning stardom, Peter shows up at the Falcon to whisk Patricia back to London. Her resolve to tell Teddy about the love-triangle is disrupted by an unscheduled night-time mission that tear the men away from their sweethearts.
With poor navigational equipment, the potential for failure is a catastrophic 50%, if the men are not first picked off by German night fighters who use the same flare paths that aid in take-off as glowing targets. The valor, courage and camaraderie of these men are tested every time they take flight.
Marcus Stusek’s trim and comfortable period pieces make the set appear large and spacious despite Jericho Arts Centre’s cozy quarters, which coincidentally was built in 1940 as a RAF recreation hall. Andrew Pye’s intuitive and glorious lighting balance an ambiance of grief, longing and hope. Outstanding performances by the cast delicately underscore the intense emotions of the characters. Jesse Martyn is a perfectly smug but well-mannered Peter Kyle.
With his slick hair and gleaming smile, Kyle looks every bit a matinee mega-star. Laura Jaye as the gruff Mrs. Oakes infuses the unflappable lady with compassion and grace. Ashley O’Connell and Melissa Oei play the Millers like a seasoned old couple. Their expressions and dialogue are so convincing that they remind me of people I actually know!
The antics of Count Skriczevinsky, played by a stalwart Sebastian Kroon, absolutely steal the show. Onstage with Tamara McCarthy as his Countess, they bring emotional and comedic moments that break the mounting tension.
Yoshié Bancroft and Curtis Tweedie were tender in their portrayal of the Grahams, however, they don’t deliver the emotional heft required for these demanding roles. Paul Herbert as Swanson and Julie Leung as Percy were fluid as supporting characters bringing warmth and sympathy to their companions.
In the midst of WWII, Rattigan’s play was well received by British audiences who desperately needed a boost in morale. By today’s standards the plot line may seem predictable and uninspired, however when submersed in the context of the times, the play is patriotic, poignant and sincere.
Under the discreet direction of Genevieve Fleming, Flare Path is a charming historic piece; exquisite, yet underplayed entertainment at its finest. Flare Path continues at the Jericho Arts Centre through October 22.
Photos by Ryan Alexander McDonald.