Sienna Miller and James Purefoy in Flare Path (c) Tristram Kenton

Last night I went to the see Trevor Nunn’s magnificent revival of the Terence Rattigan play, Flare Path at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London. Rattigan’s 1942 play centres around a Linconshire hotel in wartime Britain in the autumn of 1941, and the collective camaraderie of the bomber crews and the spirit of their partners. Part of the playwright’s centenary-year celebrations, this is a truly masterly piece of theatre.

Terence Rattigan

The stellar cast ensemble mixes box-office draw with Sienna Miller and Sheridan Smith, most recently best know for the News of the World phone tapping scandal and the latter for the sensational performances in Legally Blonde, with some brilliant, first-rate acting from the likes of James Purefoy, Harry Hadden-Patten, Clive Wood and Mark Dexter. Many of the critics will of course look at the brilliance, once again of Smith as a negative on Sienna Miller’s performance, but she delivered the role of recently married actress, Patricia with a great deal of aplomb.

Sienna Miller as Patricia

It is fair to say when the movie or A-listers hit the stage of London’s West End, everyone has high expectations and that is very often hard to live up to. Sheridan Smith came from Two Pints of Lager and therefore the expectation was minimal and Smith reveled in showing her artistic versatility. Miller is the one everyone wants to see and there can be no doubt that this role, suits her style perfectly.

Sheridan Smith as Doris in Flare Path

The action is set in a Lincolnshire hotel lounge in the autumn of 1941: it’s where the RAF pilots and crews hang out before and after their raids on German territory. But Rattigan uses a personal dilemma as a way of exploring the group ethos. Peter Kyle (James Purefoy), an ageing Hollywood star, has turned up in the hope of reclaiming the one true love of his life, the recently married Patricia (Sienna Miller). She, however, is faced with a conflict. Who needs her more? Kyle, whose career is on the skids, or her pilot husband, Teddy, whose breezy manner conceals shattered nerves? But the private drama is played out against the background of a bombing raid which is “not exactly a piece of cake”.

The wartime bombers

Rattigan allows himself one sentimental piece of plotting; and the final act of renunciation has strong echoes of A Tale of Two Cities, which he and Gielgud had adapted in 1935. But the occasional romanticism is counterbalanced by Rattigan’s genius for barely expressed emotion. A simple exchange of goodbyes between a tail-gunner and his wife, as he leaves for a raid, brings a lump to the throat. And, as the men fly off to face possible death, the wife of a Polish pilot says to Patricia: “This is the first time you’ve been here for a do, isn’t it?” In one sense, Rattigan’s plays are an attack on the English vice of emotional containment. But he also understood its dramatic power and, watching this play, it struck me that Rattigan learned that from his own wartime RAF experience – he was also a tail-gunner.

The letter moment for James Purefoy and Sheridan Smith

Nunn’s production, using interpolated film of the flight take-off, beautifully captures both the sense of danger and its boozy, raucous aftermath. And the performances are impeccable. Sienna Miller looks suitably strained, tense and taut as the agonised Patricia and James Purefoy admirably conveys the sense of exclusion felt by the movie star caught up in wartime action.

Johnny and Doris

Sheridan Smith is also quite stunning as a former barmaid who now finds herself a countess because of her marriage to the Polish pilot: Smith never overdoes the brassiness and there is a heart-stopping moment when her features light up as she learns, from a letter, how much she was loved by her missing-in-action husband. Mark Dexter as Polish Count “Johnny” Skriczevinsky and Sarah Crowden as the dour hotelier Mrs Oakes, provide the main comedy elements that really does keep the production together; without it the play would have been tedious and in need of a lift, but their moments are in perfect positions that enable the transition from light to dark to flow seamlessly.

Inside the hotel lounge

This Rattigan play is one you just have to see and now it has extended its season till 11th June, you have no choice but to book, this play is so overwhelmingly moving, I dare you to not fall madly in love with it.

Sienna and Sheridan

Flare Path is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London until 11th June 2011

Some extra shots from rehearsals –