I certainly didn't having only really clocked her as a rather glamorous 'it' girl who always seemed to be in the news for everything other than turning in superb stage performances. I think I was probably expecting a bit of a ditzy blond role for her, not the serious leading lady in Terence Rattigan's 1942 play Flare Path, which Bookhound and I went to see while we were in London recently. That'll teach me to curb my pre-conceived judgements won't it.
It was all very lastminutedotcom, off to London and I whizzed a quick e mail over to the Westend Whingers...we were thinking of going to see Blithe Spirit but they'd panned it so what would they recommend..kill to see Flare Path came back the instant reply (thanks Andrew) it's getting well deserved 5* reviews and comes with an unreserved recommend. We dashed onto the website and took out a mortgage on the last two tickets in the Royal Circle at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket whilst reminding ourselves to go to the right Theatre Royal (not the Drury Lane one) on the night.
Don't you just love the old London theatres. The Little Theatre in the Hay originally built on the site of an old inn, The King's Head in 1720 for the sum of £1500, and Henry Fielding's audacious satires are performed there to great acclaim. Surely the inn named in the aftermath of the execution of King Charles 1st just across the way in Whitehall in 1649?
The current Theatre Royal designed by renowned Regency architect John Nash and built at a cost of £20,000 in 1820. The place just oozes charm, character and history; a tiny foyer, plush little dark, flock-papered staircases and low ceilings, and to think it opened with a performance of Sheridan's The Rivals. Gaslight arrives in 1843 along with an orchestra pit, a fifteen-year old Ellen Terry performs in A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1863. A string of famous actors have graced this stage since; in recent years, Lauren Bacall, Alec Guiness and a bevvy of Redgraves, Christopher Reeve, Ben Kingsley, Peter O'Toole, Jack Lemmon, the list is endless and now Sienna Miller.
I love that moment when we settle into our seats and get our bearings too. We sit and look at the stage for a while and wonder what will be revealed, and I've suddenly changed my mind and do need a packet of jelly babies and a programme, and slowly the theatre fills up around us, and we're almost at the end of the row so we stand up and sit down many times over. We wait for the preternaturally very tallest person to sit right in front of me and when that happens (which it did) Bookhound, who always has the smallest person in front of him, swaps seats with me. We arrange the jelly babies so the packet doesn't make a noise and that's us poised ready for curtain up.
Directed by Trevor Nunn the action in Flare Path centres on the Falcon Hotel situated near to an RAF airbase in Lincolnshire. Teddy, a young bomber pilot, is meeting up with his actress wife Patricia who has arrived for a brief stay from London. When hearthrob filmstar Peter Kyle arrives unexpectedly we are the first to see his romantic involvement with Patricia, whilst Teddy seems to be the last... but in fact does the naively boyish and hapless Teddy perhaps know more than he can bear to face up to? Surrounding characters include other pilots, including a wonderful Polish Count who has married a local girl who know finds herself a Countess, a typically stern hotel keeper and others various. When the flight crew are called out on a night bombing raid those left behind must re-examine their lives and their loyalties and when some return the appalling emotional cost on their lives starts to play out.
The special effects were minimal but spectacular when they happened. As the characters watched through the window as the Wellington bombers took off, one by one the film-footage planes appeared in the distance above the stage, loomed closer and closer and louder and louder and we almost felt obliged to duck in the Royal Circle as they seemed to fly over head.
Sienna Miller meanwhile, accomplished and divine as Patricia, it's all in the deportment, and am I allowed to show my age and say you could hear every word she said, clear as a bell...well you could hear the others too, but Sienna really held the stage along with superb performances from Harry Hadden-Paton as Teddy and Sheridan Smith as Doris, Countess Skriczevinsky...Clive Wood as Squadron Leader Swanson (better known as Gloria) had us smiling as did Mark Dexter's wonderfully funny Polish Count. Whilst James Purefoy's louchly slick filmstar is about to learn some new truths and his transformation on stage incredibly moving.
Terence Rattigan had joined the RAF in 1940 having become a celebrated playwright but one suffering from writer's block. Whilst his psychiatrist suggested he needed a dose of discipline and advised he joined the war effort, Rattigan's decision to become a tail gunner, the most dangerous seat in the plane, seemed like a fairly drastic remedy. It paid off and soon restored his ability and his willingness to write and with no shortage of subjects surrounding him from which to choose. Flare Path was written during active service and sent by Rattigan to his parents with the request that they get it noticed which they duly did and it opened in 1942. An instant success playing for 670 performances to a public well- attuned to the sorrows and stresses of war, even Winston Churchill saw it and commented thus..
'I was very moved by this play.It is a masterpiece of understatement. But we are rather good at that aren't we?'
Well we saw it almost seventy years later and decided it was still brilliant.