As Rattigan was to write six years later at the end of The Browning Version, “occasionally an anti-climax can be surprisingly effective”. The genius of Flare Path, his 1942 slow-burner about RAF bomber crews and the wives who pray for their safe return every night, is that it so imperceptibly shifts the goalposts, changing your mind not with a sudden revelation but gradually, without you even noticing it’s happening.
Peter Kyle, a Hollywood matinee idol complete with Errol Flynn moustache, arrives unexpectedly at the Falcon Hotel in Milchester to the boundless excitement of the locals, including the RAF wives who stay there while their husbands are flying missions from the nearby aerodrome. In fact, surely he must know one of them – Patricia Warren, alongside whom he once acted? He confirms that he does. His visit begins to look more sinister, though not to her guileless husband Teddy, who just can’t wait to see the look on her face when she sees who’s come to visit.
Before long our suspicions are confirmed – they once had an affair, and he has now come to take her away forever. He’s getting on a bit and the studio have confirmed his next film will be his last – he frankly admits he’s not a good enough actor to get by once his looks fade – and it’s led him to reassess what matters to him, even if this happens to be someone else’s wife.
Flare Path was written in the same year as Casablanca, with its famous “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world” speech, and the sentiment is not dissimilar, nor is the change we see the characters undergo. However, as always with Rattigan the brilliance lies in the construction – the scene in which Kyle, the only one who speaks French, is asked to translate a letter left by a Polish airman for his wife in the event of his death, is absolute genius. Rattigan also has a lot of fun puncturing mindless patriotism, not a little thing to do while the war was still raging – at one point “Jerry” is cursed for the cowardly trick of lurking near the aerodrome to attack the bombers as they return, followed immediately by the admission that we do exactly the same to them. When a character inadvertently says something jingoistic, he berates himself “How Daily Mail – thank God no one else heard me say it” – brave of them to keep in something which can hardly help their review in that august publication, and even braver to keep in the moment when the same character hopes to be described as the “whitest” fellow Kyle has ever met.
Hayley Grindle’s set, lit by Alex Wardle, gives us a window suspended in mid-air to stand in for the back wall, which seems odd in an otherwise naturalistic set but perhaps a necessary compromise in a touring production.
Leon Ockenden is excellent as the callous lounge lizard Kyle, as is Philip Franks as the avuncular Squadron Leader Swanson, universally known as Gloria. Alastair Whatley brings depth and poignancy to the character of Teddy. Only Olivia Hallinan as Patricia fails to give us anything more than a clipped stereotype.