By: Terence Rattigan
Directed by: Trevor Nunn
Venue: Theatre Royal, Haymarket
Date: Wednesday, 6th April 2011
We saw a touring production of this many years ago; not a great production and the play didn’t strike us as one of Rattigan’s best. We’re very fond of Rattigan’s work, so we came to this performance with the best attitude – we didn’t have high expectations, but we were keen to see the play again in a more powerful production, to get a better sense of its scope.
Personally, I was gone long before it started. About twenty minutes before the off, they started playing 1940s swing numbers to get us in the mood. I didn’t recognise any specific songs, but the period feel was perfect. Then I started reading the program notes, about Rattigan’s own wartime experiences and the strategy of the bombing campaign against Germany. I had to clean my glasses again, they’d become all mucky from my tears.
And there were more tears to come, for all sorts of reasons. The play started quietly enough, with an almost empty set, the residents’ lounge of the small country hotel where all the action takes place. There was a door to the lounge bar front left, with the light switches beside it, further back was the reception desk, and back left was the main door. The stairs were back right, and between the door and the stairs was the enormous window, all carefully taped up in case of bombs. On the right was the fireplace, and there were lots of chairs and tables scattered around. Above this main set, there was a panel which showed pictures of the take offs, including the final, fatal one. There were also many sound effects of plane engines – thank God they didn’t use Lancasters or I’d have been well sodden before the interval.
The play began with the arrival of Peter Kyle, a famous film actor, born British but now an American citizen. He’s recognised fairly quickly by the only other person in the lounge, Doris, otherwise known as the Countess Unpronounceable (Skriczevinsky). She’s not Polish herself, but is married to a Polish pilot, Johnny. She persuades Mrs Oakes, the hotel proprietor, to let Mr Kyle have a room for the night – even though we’ve established that the hotel is full, she grudgingly lets Mr Kyle sleep in the Wing Commander’s room, but makes him promise not to touch any of the Wing Commander’s things.
This scene is a marvellous combination of different facets of life at that time. Eager for news (aka gossip), Doris is bright and chatty one minute, then when she hears the sound of engines she becomes brisk and businesslike, with a strong sense of underlying tension. It could seem an odd shift, but here it worked brilliantly to take us into the characters’ world without a lot of explanation. Fortunately, with Peter Kyle being an ex-pat, so to speak, there were plenty of opportunities to explain RAF slang to everyone when needed, and although many of the terms are familiar now, I found it helpful to be reminded that these words and phrases were just being coined.
The other characters start arriving, and soon we’ve met rear gunner Miller, his wife Maudie, Johnny the Polish Count, Teddy Graham (a bomber pilot) and his wife Patricia, who used to be an actress, and who had even been in one of Mr Kyle’s plays in London some years ago (Steve and I exchanged knowing looks).
We also met Percy, the hotel’s waiter, a young lad not yet old enough to be called up but old enough to take a keen interest in the activities of the local bomber squadron. He didn’t get anything out of the bomber crew, but that didn’t stop him spreading rumours about likely raids and intended targets.
The final character is ‘Gloria’, aka Squadron Leader Swanson, who appears late in the first act to send the airmen on a dangerous mission. With her husband off to fight the Hun, Patricia doesn’t get a chance to tell him she’s leaving to be with Peter, and as events unfold, first she and then Peter himself recognise that they have to end their affair.
Just as they end things, we’re treated to the safe return of Johnny, who landed in the drink, and had quite an adventure getting back to base. With his arrival, everyone cheers up, apart from Peter and Patricia, and the play concludes with drinks all round – even Mrs Miller has a port in her hand and the beginnings of a smile on her face – and the first verse of a very lewd song.
There were marvellous performances all round. Although I found Sienna Miller and James Purefoy to be more ‘theatrical’ than the rest, that was reasonable given their characters, so I’m not complaining. The most emotional scene, where Teddy breaks down and reveals his terror to his wife, was very moving and difficult to watch. Harry Hadden-Paton’s performance was particularly good – it’s a tricky scene to get right, but he went a long way into the man’s fear and sense of his own weakness without losing my sympathy or making it comic. Of course, his wife’s reactions are an important part of making the scene work, and Sienna Miller held her own beautifully.
The other sniffle fest was after this, when Peter reads the Count’s letter to his wife, given to her in case he doesn’t return from a ‘do’. Written in French, she needs Peter’s help as translator, and there’s a moment for both of them when he reads that the Count had been looking forward to taking his wife home to his country after the war; Peter had voiced the opinion that she was a Countess only till the war was over (how wrong can you be?) and she had overheard him (that’s the trouble with public lounges). Both actors made the most of this intimate moment, even though it wasn’t really an intimacy between themselves.
For all the sniffles, there were also a lot of laughs to help things along. With very little actually appearing to happen, we still get a fascinating insight onto life at that time for a particular section of the population, such is Rattigan’s skill as a playwright. We’re really looking forward to the rest of the planned Rattigan productions this year – if they’re half as good as this, we’re in for a fantastic time.
© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me