Upper lips are being worn particularly stiff this year in a slew of revivals marking the centenary of the late dramatist Terence Rattigan. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Trevor Nunn’s production of “Flare Path,” a 1942 drama about the lives, loves and sacrifices of WW2 flying crews. Weak casting in some central roles threatens to sandbag a production already doggedly intent on (over)displaying its detailing. But a career-making performance from Harry Hadden-Paton and knockout support elsewhere create an ultimately pleasing mix of pain, comedy and audience-rousing, patriotic punch.

If the previously neglected “Flare Path” has more than a whiff of gung-ho British movies about it, that’s because it was one – extensively rewritten, it became the “The Way to the Stars.”

Set throughout in the hotel’s reception area over the course of Saturday night and Sunday morning, the play dissects a tight-knit group of Royal Air Force pilots and crew in a rural hotel. Jollying each other along, they disguise the ever-present spectre of death to the enemy and themselves with banter and bonhomie.

Rattigan opens their lives up to inspection via a Hollywood star, Peter Kyle (James Purefoy), who affects merely to be dropping by. In fact he is secretly there by arrangement. He is running off with his lover Patricia (Sienna Miller), the seemingly dutiful wife of Flight Lieutenant Graham (Harry Hadden-Paton).

The stakes are raised via the lovers’ snatched moments of intimacy as guests – and her husband – come and go about their business of watching and waiting for the next bombing mission. But the sudden strain of an unexpected flight for the crew suddenly casts a different light on everyone’s relationships.

Any production of this relatively early Rattigan play is faced with the problem that, aside from the final scene’s set of twists about those who do or don’t return from the mission, surprises are few. That problem is exacerbated by Nunn’s tendency to encourage his actors to wear every element of their character like embroidery.

This is at odds with Rattigan’s hallmark approach which is to expose gradually what lurks beneath the surface, a technique that gives characters an engaging sense of development. But when a character reveals his or her hand from the start, tension evaporates.

Several of the supporting characters succumb to this tendency but it’s particularly problematic in the handling of the love triangle. Purefoy looks every inch the fading matinee idol but constantly drawing attention to his brilliantined hair and over-smiling manner makes him seem so flagrantly insincere that he elicits no sympathy. That flattens the play’s pivotal relationship. By contrast, Miller has a lovely English Rose demeanor and calmly conveys being caught in a trap of her own making. But she generates no dramatic heat. Her inaction should be crucial, but without a camera on her she doesn’t focus attention.

That’s thrown into starkest relief in her scenes with Haddon-Paton whose unshowy performance is magnetic. His character detail is there but not on display. It’s the fuel he uses to charge up his difficult, climactic breakdown. Right at the end of the play, he leaps gleefully over a sofa and it hits you that the key to his character is his boyishness. He hasn’t grown up. But, satisfyingly, he allows the audience to discover this, rather than showing it off at the top of the show.

He’s matched by Sheridan Smith in a stunning switch from her Oivier-winning turn as Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde.” Playing a barmaid who has married a Polish count, she rivets attention with a wealth of unexpected responses to her increasingly fraught situation. Never once self-indulgent, she achieves intense immediacy by acting on the line rather than indicating her feelings in added pauses.

The play is undoubtedly not first-rank Rattigan. But Hadden-Paton, Smith and a tremendously self-composed comic turn from Mark Dexter give the evening true zest.

Flare Path

Theater Royal Haymarket, London; 895 seats; £50 top

  • Production: A Matthew Byam Shaw for Playful Productions, Theater Royal Haymarket Company, Act Productions Ltd and Tom McKitterick in association with Bob Bartner and Norman Tulchin presentation of a play in two acts by Terence Rattigan. Directed by Trevor Nunn.
  • Crew: Sets and costumes, Stephen Brimson Lewis; lighting, Paul Pyant; sound, Paul Groothuis; projections, Jack James; production stage manager, Wyn Howard-Thomas. Opened, reviewed Mar. 10, 2011. Running time: 2 HOURS 50 MIN.
  • Cast: Patricia Warren - Sienna Miller <br> Peter Kyle - James Purefoy <br> Flight Lieutenant Graham - Harry Hadden-Paton <br> Doris - Sheridan Smith <br> Flying Officer Count Skriczevinsky - Mark Dexter <br> With: Joe Armstrong, Emma Handy, Sarah Crowden, Matthew Tennyson, Clive Wood, Jim Creighton, Richard Beanland, Kate Colebrook, Jan Shepherd.
  • Music By: