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Stirred but not shaken

Terrence Rattigan's vision of 1940s Lincolnshire is transported to London.

Terrence Rattigan went to considerable lengths to ensure the survival of Flare Path: when his WW2 bomber aircraft was hit, its load had to be lightened as a matter of some urgency: all personal effects, girlfriends' portraits, the lot, had to be jettisoned. But he had the presence of mind to rip the hard covers off his manuscript and stuff the pith in his pocket.

Such high drama around the play's genesis is bound to somewhat outweigh any contained within. Trevor Nunn's production at the Theatre Royal Haymarket transports us back to stuffy 1940s Lincolnshire. Forces' sweethearts croon and crackle in the background as the curtain lifts on an unremittingly brown hotel lobby, supposedly hard by an air force base, where pilots gather to spend precious time with their wives between daring bombing raids. A period piece this may be, but with Lincolnshire bombers again in action over Libya, it is now unexpectedly germane.

It's rich in the argot of its time, when people got in a funk, the sorties are "do's" and to die is to have "bought it". This sidelong idiom, which rarely squares up to reality, is a cornerstone to Rattigan's premise of restrained but heroic British resilience in the face of trauma. Its very best exponent is the magnetic north of the whole production, ex-barmaid Doris, played with extraordinary clarity by Sheridan Smith. Her amiable chat, and her squawks of "dears" and "ducks," scarcely paper over the well of feeling for her Polish airman husband.

Smith, whose art is to appear artless, delivers a performance of touching generosity. When Doris's husband is missing, and feared dead, great fat tears slide down her cheeks as her smiles and stoicism are bent to breaking point; her soft remark that "Germans don't treat Poles like prisoners of war" is quietly devastating.

The brown hotel is populated by chirpy caricatures of the lower classes -- a bosomy, pinnied hostess and her callow factotum Percy. (The actors don't, unfortunately, share Smith's ease with the Lincolnshire brogue.) In Rattigan-land, the working classes are pretty hilarious, but not as hilarious as them foreigners! The foreigner in question -- who is actually called Johnny -- is Doris's husband, the Count Skriczevinsky, and his scant acquaintance with the English language ("that was good how I am saying him?") provokes the most hilarity amongst the characters, and audience, alike.

The crux of the play is a love triangle, between fading matinée idol Peter Kyle (a bounderish James Purefoy), glam actress Patricia Graham (Sienna Miller) and her jolly good-egg pilot husband Teddy, played with all the bounce of a friendly Tigger by Harry Hadden-Paton. Patriotic and wifely duties combine to mean that Patricia must renounce her fascinating paramour and cleave to the good egg hubby, but here's where the structural tension sags, since it's impossible to buy into the Purefoy-Miller axis. With no heat, no passion in the affair, its renunciation doesn't seem like such a big deal. Frankly, I'd go for Tigger any day.

This lack of intensity is partly down to Miller's rather ordinary, temperate performance. In her movements onstage one can still see traces of the blocking: she appears to travel along pre-ordained lines. Her lachrymose moments -- and there are a few -- look like a mild kerfuffle; her rangy form seemingly expressing some vague vexation instead of heartbreak. But it's not all Miller's fault. The deep structure of the play itself lists clearly to one side: the character of Peter is pretty unlikeable, and on the night I saw the show, Purefoy drew audible tutting from the crowd at one of his caddish moments. Small wonder we're not drawn into relations between the cad and the cadaverous.

Hard, also, to perform stiff upper lip without being merely stiff; and frankly the most credible love story on the understated Rattigan scene is not amongst the obvious couples at all, but between the pilots and their squadron leader. Their insider jokes, private language and affectionate nicknames ("Prune" and "Gloria") clearly hint at the closeted gay playwright's views on the strength and endurance of feeling between men.

The designers allow themselves one big FX moment when the bombers take off, but for me this son et lumière sits uneasily with the scrupulous naturalism of the beige lobby. Nunn keeps his Flare Path straight and steady rather than incendiary. What emerges is an uncontroversial homily on British sang-froid, comfortably confirming all we think we're good at. We leave stirred, but not shaken.