Thursday, 27 February 2014

Flare Path by Terrence Rattigan

There's a new kid in town.

A new kid who flounces and projects and stalks around the stage wiggling their eyebrows with the best of them.  My work place has started up a new staff drama society.  They are very new but my word do they know what they are doing!
I work at a University and that has some distinct advantages.  One of those is a handy Estates department who have the space and ability to build amazing sets, another is a theatre on campus where you can perform, there is an on campus design and print unit for all your publicity and programme needs and you also have access to a few thousand staff so hopefully you will get some with some interest and excitement in being part of a staff group!  An email went around the staff network back in the autumn asking people to audition for a new show and a new drama group.  I was intrigued but at the time I had my hands full with Wyrd Sisters and couldn't commit to another group.
However a few of my colleagues were able to commit and after months of hearing stories about rehearsals and line learning the time finally came to see them in action.  One of my colleagues, Jo, mobilised us and we went on a staff outing across the campus to the theatre for dinner and a night of entertainment.
I was incredibly impressed with the set - it was sturdy, practical and the finish was of an extremely high quality.  There was no sign of wobble with the staircase, the doors didn't stick and all the finishes were true to the period.  If I have one criticism it would be that they should have painted the floor - the standard black floor of the Gulbenkian did not look right with the inside of the hotel lounge and floorboards are extremely easy to paint and look very effective when lit up.  It would have added that additional touch of realism and I couldn't understand why it was left black (and scuffed as well as no paint had been put down to cover up the marks of previous shows) when so much time and effort had clearly gone into the rest of the set design, right down to the gravel pit by the exit stage right which gave the impression of the actors walking up a gravel driveway to the hotel front door.
Costumes and props were all true to the period as well and looked impeccable.  The soundtrack was gorgeous, with 1940's spirit lifting war songs intermingled with the engines of bomber planes.  We came on opening night and there were a few problems with the sound in the 1st Act as some of the levels had been set so high that you couldn't hear a word that the actors were saying on stage, especially when they were peering out of the window at the fighter planes and had their backs to the audience, however this was quickly resolved by Act 2.
So, onto the show itself.  This was a relatively small cast production - 10 or so characters all of whom spent a significant amount of time out on the stage.  Just before the play started my colleagues and I were all sat in the audience nosing through the programme going 'oh, it's so and so from Estates, and so and so from this Department - I've never met them but I speak to them a lot on the phone, oooh I didn't know HE was in it!' and so on.

The play is written by Terrence Rattigan in 1941 and is partly based on his own wartime experiences during the 2nd World War in England.

The play opens with actors already in position and quietly showing the day to day life of this little hotel in Lincolnshire near a RAF base.

We are introduced to three women who are all waiting for their pilot husbands to spend a couple of days on leave.  There is Pat, an actress who is married to Teddy the bomber pilot, Doris who is married to the Polish Count who is serving in the RAF, and Maudie who arrives late who is married to Dusty, Teddy's tail gunner.  Each of the couples have their own quirks and foibles and there are three very distinct types of relationships on display.

In addition there is also the strict and no-nonsense Hotel Manager, Mrs Oakes and the barmaid, Percy as well as Squadron Leader Swanson and a young airman, Wiggy.
The situation is complicated when Peter Kyle, an American actor arrives who is having an affair with Pat.  Pat is ready to leave Teddy and run away with Peter when the RAF pilots all get unexpectedly called away on a night raid.  4 planes leave at 10pm that night whilst the women sit at the hotel and wait for news.   They stand at the window and look at the Flare Path, the lamps outlining the runway that were lit to enable planes to take off and land during night missions.  This was dangerous as it also highlighted planes to the Luftwaffe who would shoot them down as they attempted take off.

During the course of the evening we learn that one of the planes is shot down upon take-off and one has not returned from their mission.  Pat starts to unravel slowly as her worry for Teddy's safety conflicts with her desire to elope with Peter.  A lot of alcohol is consumed.
Gradually the RAF pilots start to return.  Dusty comes in first and is reunited with his long suffering wife Maudie.  Teddy follows shortly afterwards.  The Count does not return and the Countess, fearing the worst, retires to her room.   It is now about 5am in the morning and everyone apart from Pat and Teddy go to bed.

Once alone Teddy confesses to Pat that he was terrified.  He was responsible for the lives of 6 men and he wasn't sure that he would be able to bring them home, and the only thing that kept him going was the thought of Pat.  He breaks down on her, who realises that she truly loves him and could never leave him.

The next morning she leaves a note for Peter explaining her decision.  He takes this very badly and confronts Pat, threatening to tell Teddy what has been going on between them.  Before he has a chance to though the Countess asks Peter, who speaks French, to translate a letter that the Count had left for her that was only to be opened upon the event of his death.  As Peter reads the letter to the Countess he realises that he would never be able to force Pat to leave Teddy and changes his mind about outing her, leaving the hotel quietly.
Suddenly there is a commotion at the door and the Count appears, alive and well, having fallen into 'the drink' when his plane crashed into the sea and forced to make his way back to the airbase by whatever means possible.  A highly relieved Countess is reunited with her husband.
This was quite a gentle play which mixed touches of light comedy with real pathos.  The scene between Teddy and Pat when Teddy breaks down was incredibly powerful and easily the stand out moment for me.  The play explored the intermingling of human emotion and interaction under a highly pressurised set of circumstances and I think that the Players interpreted their material very well.

I was incredibly impressed with the level of professionalism from all the cast and crew, especially considering that for most of them this was their first experience with amateur dramatics, adding weight to the expression that 'amateur does not mean poor quality'. 

I am really quite keen to see what this new group comes up with next!
Photo Credits go to Kasia Senyszyn who took them at the dress rehearsal and sent them to me.  I would have done them, but I was rehearsing myself that night!

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