Monday, 17 December 2018

Love triangle adds perspective to pilots who feared no tomorrow

WE cannot know the fear Bomber crews endured in the early Forties. We have seen films, read books

WE cannot know the fear Bomber crews endured in the early Forties. We have seen films, read books and even talked to those who were there, but it still eludes us.

Terrence Rattigan’s Flare Path comes as close as we’re likely to get. Rattigan was a tail gunner and knew what he was writing about in 1942.

It’s surprising that much of this play got past the censors at the time because it pulls no punches about the crippling nature of fear and the image of cheery flight crews gadding about the skies is severely undermined.

But that is what makes this play so valuable and this latest production in the second week of its tour does it justice — even if there were a few minor first night jitters.

Much of it could apply today: we have a self-absorbed film star who’s taken US citizenship. Peter Kyle is a man who believes that celebrity means being important and that his own selfish needs outweigh all else. He has an affair with the actress wife of a terrified bomber pilot, a man who screws down his fear every night to lead his six-man crew into a 50:50 chance of survival in German skies. Otherwise Flt Lt Teddy Graham’s fear is masked by drink, like nearly all his RAF colleagues.

Who will win, the glamorous film star, or the dutiful officer, already so damaged in his early life that it’s unlikely he’ll really recover — if he survives?

Rattigan gives us plenty to chew on: the characterisation is perfect, the plot realistic and the situations entirely in keeping with those desperate times.

It’s all set to go one way until Teddy is called to the RAF station for another raid, together with some of his colleagues. Not all return from the mission but the aftermath sees characters in a different light, after the drink has worn off and before new drink has been taken. We who have grown up and old in the relative safety of NATO and a peaceful Europe won’t understand the mindset of these young men and women; they had no idea if they would live to see the next sunrise.

The beauty of Rattigan is that the plot always serves the characters, not the other way around, so we care deeply about what happens to them.

Special acting honours go to Daniel Fraser as Teddy, but everyone has to display an intensity which they’re trying to hide and they all bring it off — although a little insecurity in Graham Seed’s lines as Sq Ldr Swanson was occasionally off-putting. There’s also an exaggerated restlessness in Hedydd Dylan’s Patricia in an otherwise excellent portrayal of a woman torn.

Flare Path is at Oxford until Saturday and returns to the area at Wycombe and Reading in the spring.

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