Radio Review: Flare Path / Rock and Doris and Elizabeth

“There’s a war on, things will have to be different”

There was so much activity celebrating the centenary of Terence Rattigan’s birth last year that it is hardly surprising that I missed some of it, but I can’t believe I let this radio adaptation of Flare Path pass me by. Trevor Nunn’s revival at the Theatre Royal Haymarket was a genuine highlight of last year, a true revelation from this long-neglected playwright whose belated reassessment has been proved over and again by a suite of excellent productions over the last few years. And so a radio version, starring none other than my beloved Ruth Wilson alongside other such favourites like Rupert Penry-Jones, Rory Kinnear and Monica Dolan, was guaranteed to grab my attention, if only second time around.

My love for Ruth Wilson aside, her casting is inspired here as haughty actress Pat, especially with Monica Dolan as the contrastingly open Doris. Where Sienna Miller caught the aloofness of Pat but didn’t always pair that with the emotional depth necessary to express the conflict of the central love triangle, Wilson gets to the heart of the woman and makes us care much more about her dilemma, her mellifluous voice cracking as she is confronted with feelings and situations that shake her certainties. And against Sheridan Smith’s superlative performance as Doris, Monica Dolan does a brilliant job with a subtly different take on the character, a more roundedly intelligent, slightly less dippy interpretation, but no less moving as she anxiously waits for news of her missing husband.

The boys do well too, with Rupert Penry-Jones’ giving convincing emotional restraint to Peter, unable to connect to the emotional needs of a nation at war and Tom Goodman-Hill’s Polish count remains on the right side of caricature. I wasn’t too keen on Rory Kinnear’s immense earnestness as Teddy though, a little too overplayed to be really convincing. Una Stubbs is great as the hard-working landlady fussing around them all and the whole adaptation, directed by Jeremy Herrin, works extremely well on the radio with several scenes really coming to life, especially with the planes in the dark, in the visual language.

Tracy-Ann Oberman’s first radio play was Bette and Joan and Baby Jane, looking at the fractious relationship between those two Hollywood legends and for her second, Rock and Doris and Elizabeth, she remains in the same arena to look at the shock revelation in 1985 that Rock Hudson was dying of AIDS and how that impacted on two women close to him, his erstwhile co-star Doris Day and pioneering AIDS campaigner in the making, Elizabeth Taylor. As Day seeks to revive her career with a new show on a right-wing Christian cable network, she is encouraged to use her connections to get guests on the show and Hudson seems the perfect choice. But it is ten years since she has seen him and his appearance sends shockwaves across the entire entertainment industry and beyond.

Oberman clearly has a great passion for her subject and invests a great deal of warm characterisation into her protagonists, all lonely and disillusioned in their own way: she takes on the role of the determined Taylor herself; Frances Barber makes a beautifully fragile Doris Day; and Jonathan Hyde’s take on the ailing Hudson is achingly poignant as the ultimate matinee idol set about shattering both his public image and delusions that AIDS was restricted to drug addicts and bums. There’s sometimes a little too much warmth though, with a fair amount of self-indulgent ‘woe is me’ chat in the middle of the piece which possibly veered a little close to hagiography, unchallenged as it is. 

Fortunately, that isn’t the predominant theme though as Oberman peppers her script with all sorts of delicious details – Day’s dismissal of Murder She Wrote as a programme that won’t last, Taylor’s diva-ish tendencies popping up every now and then – which keep it from being too weighed down with melancholy feeling, though a sombre coda does feel like the right ending.

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