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Julie Leung and Tamara McCarthy. Photo by Ryan Alexander McDonald.
When I first studied Modern British Drama back in the 1960s, the creation story went like this: modern drama began in 1956 with kitchen sink and John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. Working class hero Osborne begat John Arden and Arden begat Harold Pinter (with Beckett in the background). The Old School incarnate, the Serpent of romantic melodrama that had to be kicked out of the Garden for theatrical paradise to ensue, was Terence Rattigan, Oxford-educated upper class twit.
That image of Rattigan was only partly true, and with time his plays have made a comeback in the UK and in Canadian venues like the Shaw Festival. But other than a production of The Winslow Boy at Metro Theatre a few years ago, I can’t recall anything like a Rattigan revival in Vancouver. The Flare Path might change that.
A World War Two melodrama about love and survival among a group of RAF flyers and their women, The Flare Path is one of Rattigan’s lesser-known pieces. It has many of the flaws that make his plays feel hopelessly old-fashioned: plummy English accents and comical working class characters, scenes of generic romantic encounter that seem snatched right out of old movies, and an ending that avoids directly confronting the horror of war.
That said, the play also features moments of real dramatic power and startling reminders of what it must have been like to live in that place and time. And Genevieve Fleming’s production is astonishingly fine. Her eleven actors approach their characters with profound emotional honesty and clarity, avoiding anything like the camp this kind of play invites from North Americans. It seems an unusual choice for a co-op, but maybe that was the attraction: a vehicle that forces all the performers to stretch well outside their comfort zones. The design elements, too, Marcus Stusek’s handsome hotel lobby set, Chantal Short’s terrific period costumes, Andrew Pye’s lighting (the characters are hyper-aware of when blackouts are required to prevent the German bombers from making them targets), and especially Curtis Tweedie’s super-realistic sounds of warplanes flying overhead, all help make this a memorable show.
The plot revolves around dapper actor Peter (Jesse Martyn) coming to this provincial hotel alongside an RAF base to get the love of his life, Patricia (Yoshié Bancroft), to run off with him. Patricia is married to a pilot, Flight-Lieutenant Teddy Graham (Curtis Tweedie), but she really loves Peter and agrees to tell her husband she’s leaving him -- until Teddy is notified of a bombing run he and the others have to fly that night. By the time Teddy and his tail gunner, Sgt. Miller (Ashley O’Connell), return, shaken, from their mission, and their fellow pilot, Polish expat Count Johnny (Sebastian Kroon), is reported shot down by Squadron Leader Swanson (Paul Herbert), Patricia’s calculus has changed. The ending is pretty much what you’d expect from a drama about the military written and premiered in the midst of a war.
Other women’s experiences figure significantly in the drama, too, especially those of the barmaid who married Johnny and is now called Countess (Tamara McCarthy), and Sgt. Miller’s wife Maudie (Melissa Oei), who is terrified of losing her wartime job. The hotelier Mrs. Oakes (Laura Jaye) and serving girl Percy (Julie Leung) have smaller roles.
The acting is nearly all note-perfect, including the accents. Bancroft does a lovely job showing us Patricia’s conflict, torn between her two men, between love and duty. O’Connell and Oei provide cringe-worthy comedy as the quarreling Cockney couple (the actors are excellent; the cringes come from the dated classism and sexism of the script) and transition beautifully into the serious dramatic concerns of their characters. Herbert finds dignity without artifice in the Squadron Leader, the one man in uniform who does no fighting but has to deliver the bad news. Only Leung’s Percy feels like she belongs in a different play, maybe a farce. Both the actor and director should tone down her hyper-activity.
Amid all this good work a few performances really stand out. Kroon’s Polish Count Johnny is very funny struggling with his English, but he never crosses the line; when we find out that he’s a man whose wife and children were murdered by the Nazis, we believe it. Tweedie plays Teddy as a charming, breezy lightweight until a powerful scene where he confesses his terrors to his wife and has a scary post-traumatic breakdown. Martyn is exceptional as the pompous actor in love, the only non-soldier among the men. This character could easily slide into stereotype, but Martyn gives Peter complexity and dimension and makes him as sympathetic as Peter could possibly be in the circumstances. Finally, McCarthy is simply fabulous as the Countess, the ultimate stiff-upper-lip Englishwoman facing the likelihood of her husband’s death.
Her work here epitomizes what makes this production so successful: a total commitment on the part of the artists involved to the reality of character and situation, giving us access to the genuinely moving human drama in melodrama.