Why is there a Terence Rattigan revival? Flare Path doesn’t provide easy answers

Terence Rattigan's Flare Path feels old-fashioned.

Curtis Tweedie and Yoshié Bancroft work the WWII romance in Flare Path.

Watching this production of Flare Path is a bit like listening to an old vinyl record that’s being played on a faulty phonograph. For much of the first act, the needle keeps popping out of the groove. When the needle settles, in Act 2, there’s some beautiful music. In other words, under Genevieve Fleming’s direction, this ensemble struggles with style, but eventually gets it more or less right.

Playwright Terence Rattigan, who served as a gunner in the Royal Air Force, wrote Flare Path in 1941. It’s set in an English coastal hotel where several airmen from a nearby RAF base are planning to spend the weekend with their wives. Then a movie star shows up. That star, Peter Kyle, wants to reclaim Patricia, the love of his life, but she has been married for almost a year to a pilot named Teddy Graham. When the airmen are called out on a dangerous raid—with typical English understatement, their squadron leader refers to it as “not a piece of cake”—the central question becomes: Who will make it back alive?

Rattigan was a homosexual living in the early twentieth century. He was also English. Not surprisingly, his dramas derive much of their power from emotional restraint. But many of the actors here overplay the material. As crabby Mrs. Oakes, who runs the hotel, Laura Jaye telegraphs every feeling so strongly she might as well be doing mime. Playing Countess Skriczevinsky, a barmaid who got her title by marrying a Polish airman, Tamara McCarthy flutters and twitches in the early going. Julie Leung, who takes on the role of a waiter named Percy, is so broad that she’s in a production of her own—probably a panto. And even though Jesse Martyn, who plays Kyle the movie star, has a keen sense of what suaveness looked like in the ‘40s, he leans too far into that sensibility and risks parody. This production is aiming for a period feel, but often overshoots the mark.

That said, some of the performances are strong all the way through and Act 2 improves mightily. Yoshié Bancroft gets everything right as Patricia. Rather than trying to imitate the performances in old black-and-white movies, she stays impeccably emotionally honest. Sebastian Kroon’s Polish count is also excellent. The character’s English is poor and, in many ways, he’s a comic figure, but Kroon keeps his portrait grounded. McCarthy’s Countess finds a beautiful tone in the second half: her reaction to a potential tragedy moved me to tears. And, as the dramatic stakes increase, other actors also rise to the occasion. Curtis Tweedie is often too reductively light as Pamela’s husband, a jokester who is, in fact, troubled, but Tweedie pulls off a touching revelation. Paul Herbert (Squadron Leader Swanson) and Martyn (the movie star) also dig deep and find riches in Act 2.

Marcus Stusek’s vast naturalistic set is impressive and Chantal Short has chosen the period costumes carefully.

The play itself feels antique—Pamela makes her romantic choice based on her assessment of which of the men in her life needs her more—and I’m at a loss to explain why there has been a renewed interest in Rattigan in the last few years. Still, if you hang in there, this production of Flare Path eventually delivers an emotional punch.

FLARE PATH By Terence Rattigan. Directed by Genevieve Fleming. Produced by The Slamming Door Artist Collective. At the Jericho Arts Centre on Thursday, October 6. Continues until October 22.

 

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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