In 1941 young Terence Rattigan was creatively blocked, gloomy after an early success then a relative failure. He joined the wartime RAF as a tail-gunner in a Wellington bomber, and in a crippled plane, on a dangerous landing, snatched a torn draft from his notebook. The play, fresh from his own experience of comradeship, duty and fear touched audiences deeply: one fellow-airman said there was “shock, that he had seen so deeply into us”. Their world after all was new in the history of wartime: aircrews in rural England would stroll the lanes by day and meet their wives and girlfriends – in pubs like the one where the play is set – and that night fly missions over Germany amid flak and flames. Soldiers in the field can retreat into a supportive military world: these boys, often still in their teens, lived half their lives in an idyllic England, knowing they might lose it forever in a few hours time.
The play fell out of use for decades, in the postwar queasiness about the civilian cost of bombings over Hitler’s Germany. But Trevor Nunn’s West End revival in the Rattigan centenary reminded us what a terrific play it is: perfectly constructed, emotionally intense, suspenseful, a model of courteous clarity in its vignette of a single night with one set of aircrew and civilians. That clarity is important, and old-fashioned in its skill: my companion, not having grown up like me with air-minded brothers, knew nothing of RAF routines and bantering culture, but understood it all. It is good that this Original Theatre Company production is going to tour, and bring back that unforgotten interlude of duty, debt, skill and stoicism.
Justin Audibert directs what is in the main a strong cast, notably Alastair Whatley as the puppyish, larky pilot Teddy Graham, morale-boosting joker of the base: his emotional collapse in the dawn is truthful, sharp and shocking. His glamorous wife Pat – on the verge of running off with a more glamorous old flame from the movie business – is played also with particular fine judgement by Olivia Hallinan, conveying with proper Rattiganesque pain the conflict between her romantic passion and the gentler, maternal and dutiful feelings that Teddy awakes in her.
Meanwhile the night and morning of the older, more battered, angrier Polish airman and his ditzy, decent barmaid wife Doris (Siobhan O’Kelly, caricaturish at first but getting far, far better as it goes on) is moving. Those who know the play will find, once again , the letter scene and redemptive final twist just as they should be. Though the Pole, I think, is not given quite all Rattigan’s unsparing lines about his desire to flatten all Germans.
But the play’s the thing, a memory and a message from a real past, and this company do it decent credit in taking it on the road again. It has rom-com sweetness, but the lethal reality of the times sharpens it: Rattigan took care to debunk romanticism. As the Wing-Commander “Gloria” Swanson says “I hate that patriotic bilge in the newspapers, but we do owe these boys…”. Seventy years on, we still do, and it is good to see an honest rendering like this.
box office 0844 871 7651 to Saturday touring nationwide to November