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.

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.