So before Brighton Fringe coverage starts in earnest, let’s catch up on two plays from last month. Both are revivals of old but lesser-known works, both were competently produced, and whilst neither revival might have been the boldest of projects to take on, both were nice plays to watch.
This is play for the Original Theatre Company, who of course came to my attention two years ago with the excellent Birdsong. Sticking with the wartime theme, this time they are doing Flare Path, set in a bomber unit in World War Two. (Strictly speaking, this is joint venture between the Original Theatre Company and Birdsong Productions – I’m not sure why this difference matters myself, but they’ve previously asked me to clarify this. So that’s what it is folks.) Taking place over one night in a nearby hotel when the bombers are called for an unexpected mission, there are many different stories of the lives of the different pilots. The main story, however, is film star Peter Kyle who can come to tell dedicated pilot Teddy Graham that his wife, Patricia, is leaving him.
Like the soldiers and sappers of World War One, the bomber crews of World War Two had a pretty high attrition rate, with only 50% surviving the war. Luckily for the bomber pilots in this story, Terence Rattigan didn’t share Sebastian Faulks’s tastes for endless slaughter and misery, nor was it terribly fashionable in 1941 to write plays where everybody dies in agony. So this play is very much in line with Rattigan’s later plays of human relationships and interactions.
But whilst it’s a gentle story on the surface, you don’t have to scrape far underneath to see the allusions to the horrors of the war in the skies. The one theme that Flare Path shares with Birdsong is the camaraderie used to get through a mission where you could be dead before you’ve even taken off. Patricia is infuriated by her husband’s habit of using air force slang such as “kite” and “bought it” – but that is merely their way of sanitising the hideous attrition of their colleagues.
The most interesting aspect of the play, however, is the allusions to what they’re bombing. As we all know, Bomber Command is, in hindsight, the most controversial aspect of Britain’s war against Germany. Terence Rattigan was a tail-gunner himself when he wrote this play, and by accident or by design, there are hints of the mindset. Most of the crew just get on with their missions without questioning things too much . The exception is the Polish pilot whose wife and child were killed by the Nazis – he bemoans the fact that raid are done and night because he wants to see his bombs hit their targets. One particularly trigger-happy pilot has to be talked out of taking a pot-shot at a train on the way home. Although this was not to begin in earnest until three years after the play was written, it’s easy to understand how this mission could one day turn into the blitz of German cities.
And the production? They did what they needed to do. The Original Theatre Company went for a production very faithful to how it was meant to be stage, which did, oddly enough, lose them the chance to be original. But after the massive gamble that was Birdsong, I think they’re allowed an easily-produced safe bet play. Nevertheless, they’ll have a chance to play with something newer this week when they bring Invincible to Durham. A good job done for Flare Path, now let’s see how they fare with the other challenge.
Seen by me the day after Flare Path, this play coincidentally shared WW2-related name, for the German Skerries are some rocks in river Tees named after the German plane that once crashed on that. But this wasn’t what the play’s about, nor was it the reason why I chose to see this play. The setting that enticed me was bird-watching on the Tees Estuary near Redcar in the 1970s
And it’s only fair at this point to say I have a personal bias here. This is home turf for me, with Redcar just two towns along from my home town of Saltburn. The setting is important. The Tees Estuary is not a beauty spot favoured by the Barbour-wearing middle-class, but an oasis of greenery within the industrial heart of Teesside. Ships to the north, ICI to the south, this spot forms a microcosm where people from all walks of life come for their shared passion of wildlife.
It’s fair to say this isn’t a play for everyone. Not that much happens in this play; it’s mostly a snapshot of the lives of two men: a teacher from Redcar nearing retirement who thinks he’s got nothing in common with his wife any more; and a young man seemingly in a dead-end job at ICI who is lucky enough to have a loving and level-headed wife to stop him giving up. In the middle, the young-couple witness a terrible accident in the river when a pipe of boiling water explodes … but then, life goes on. As it does.
But the attraction of this play isn’t the plot. No, it’s Robert Holman’s intimate portrayal of life on Teesside. And it’s not the usual lazy themes of poverty and unemployment that too many people consider compulsory subject material for northern plays, but little things important to ordinary people getting on with their lives. As well as the detailed exploration of the cast of four, the portrayal of the area was spot on. In one bit, a character talks about how he used to climb up to the Eston Hills, where you can see the North York Moors on one side, and the city and the industry on the other. It takes a special knowledge of Teesside to understand how important that is.
I’ve only two regrets, neither of which are really criticisms of the production. Up in Arms Theatre did a good production, especially the sound and music which were excellent and perfectly atmospheric. It’s just such a shame that a piece of theatre that portrays an area of the north-east so well is ignored by theatre in the north-east. There’s no shortage of plays that portray Newcastle, but far too many people see Teesside as the poor uncultured cousin of its Tyneside neighbour. I wouldn’t mind, but Newcastle is where the arts funding in concentrated, that’s meant to be for the benefit of all the north-east, and with one honourable exception (Alastair MacDowall’s Brilliant Adventures), Teesside is usually treated like it doesn’t exist. The ultimate irony is that it falls to a theatre company in the south-west to do a play about the forgotten part of the north-east.
Which brings me to my other regret. German Skerries seems to be having mixed success with audiences, perhaps because a play of this pace only has select appeal. There is one place where I believe this play would be a massive success, and that is of course Teesside. So it’s such a shame that the nearest they got was Scarborough. So come on Middlesbrough Theatre, come on Arc Stockton, you’re missing out, so are a lot of other people. Get Up in Arms up to you while you have the chance. We shouldn’t be leaving it up to Newcastle playwrights to be writing about us on our behalf. Robert Holman is a fine example of what we’ve got on our doorstep.