Flare Path, Theatre Royal Haymarket, London
In a Forest Dark and Deep, Vaudeville, London
Ecstasy, Hampstead,London

Celebrity casting doesn't suit Trevor Nunn's Rattigan period piece, but Mike Leigh's superb 'self-revival' is Chekov in a bedsit

If this opener is anything to go by, the Haymarket is on a winning streak under Trevor Nunn's new artistic directorship. The venue aims to shine as a top-calibre West End playhouse with a stand-out policy: appointing a big-name AD every year to programme seasons.

Admittedly, Nunn's staging of Flare Path is a slow burn. Terence Rattigan's Second World War drama isn't immediately heartbreaking, when an RAF pilot's actress-wife plans to leave him for a matinee idol. The rakishly handsome screen star, Peter (James Purefoy), checks into a Lincolnshire hotel where Patricia (Sienna Miller) is staying, near her pukka husband Teddy's aerodrome. Teddy and crew fetch up – unaware of Patricia's adultery – believing they have one night free to party with their spouses. In the hotel'soak-panelled lounge, the 1940s lingo occasionally seems, I say, darling, awfully sorry, but ever so slightly wooden. Maybe the celebrity casting of Miller is the snag. Some of her lines sound more superficially delivered than felt. You might also think Rattigan's lower-class characters are only there to serve as droll caricatures.

Yet the piece deepens in due course. After Teddy's squadron leader (Clive Wood) tells them they must head off on an exceptionally dangerous raid, it's hard to not sob out loud. Rattigan's skill lay in gradually exposing the emotional layers beneath the chipper front of old-fashioned Brits.

A star-in-the-making, Harry Hadden-Paton is shatteringly poignant as Teddy, when he can't sustain the stiff upper lip any longer. While refusing to renege on his duties, he confesses his nerves are shot to hell, crying like a terrified child in his wife's arms.

Sheridan Smith (who has just won an Olivier for Legally Blonde) proves she can steer between larkiness and pathos too. As Doris, a barmaid who has married an ex-pat Polish officer, she switches from comic perky chatter to near-mute grief when he's missing in action. She conveys the unwitting pain of others' comments, just sitting in an armchair, trying to maintain a brave face as their lives carry on around her.

Rattigan clearly saw the problems, within personal relationships, caused by repressed emotions. But in Flare Path he was manifestly for the war effort too. Ultimately, the play appreciates both those who open up and those who stay tight-lipped because they believe that, in calamitous times, there are greater horrors to combat than individual unhappiness.

That moral lesson feels startlingly timely. Especially so in a week when our everyday concerns were put to shame by the stoicism in Japan. So, another Rattigan centenary revival proves touching and astute. As for the Haymarket, one cuckoo does not, of course, make a summer. Bear in mind Nunn's 2010 West End clanger, Birdsong. But Flare Path is definitely worth seeing.

In a Forest Dark and Deep, alas, is not. Olivia Willams and Matthew Fox (from Lost) are both seriously good actors, playing out the American writer-director Neil LaBute's predictably nasty sibling reunion. (He is interviewed with the producer, in this week's New Review, page 54.)

Betty, who has become a college dean, has asked her possibly psychotic, redneck brother to help her clear out a log cabin in the woods, in the middle of the night. She says, casually, that her husband has been renting it out to a guy, some student, who's vamoosed – maybe because his mum has cancer or something. Bobby is irked and twitchily spoiling for a fight, harping on about her promiscuous adolescence.

There's obviously a skeleton in the cupboard. Apart from the moments where Fox's bearded Bobby suddenly looks like a sternly moral then merciful Christian God, LaBute's revelations offer few surprises. The tissue of lies is transparent, and his Sam Shepard-meets-Gothic horror format seems hackneyed, complete with lightning and guttering lamps.

Not that much happens, dramatically, in Mike Leigh's early slice-of-life play, Ecstasy. Yet his self-directed Hampstead Theatre revival is superb. A poky, grey Kilburn flat floats in a sea of darkness. A passing police siren wails. Dogs bark. Sian Brooke's Jean, a lonely soul, knocks back double gins and exudes unspoken despair – rubbing her shin by an electric fire.

In the opening scenes, we see her stuck in a cold, abusive affair. Then, however, Ecstasy drifts into a knowingly protracted and exceptionally subtle portrait of blue-collar camaraderie. Jean's old Brummie friend, Dawn (Sinead Matthews), comes round with her Irish builder-husband, Mick (Allen Leech), and the dull but gentle Len (Craig Parkinson). He once courted Jean. They get plastered, blather nostalgically and have a singsong.

The ensemble naturalism is flawless, like Chekhov in a bedsit. The comedy is wonderful, especially from Matthews' squawky Dawn. And after Parkinson and Leech's priceless rendition of Elvis's "Heartbreak Hotel", Jean's folk-singing is an extraordinary still point: an expression of radical melancholy and tentative hope, suddenly reaching way beyond this snapshot of 1979's winter of discontent.



'Flare Path' (0845 481 1870) to 4 Jun; 'In a Forest Dark and Deep' (0844 412 4663) to 4 Jun; 'Ecstasy' (020-7722 9301) to 9 Apr



Next Week

Kate Bassett hopes to be blown away by The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Theatre choice

Set in a London comprehensive, Mogadishu, right, is an outstanding first play by a teacher-turned-writer. Playing at the Lyric, Hammersmith (to 2 April), it explores the role of a gang's lies in the dismissal of a hitherto liberal teacher. At the BAC in Battersea (to 9 April), Kneehigh revive their award-winning, early hit The Red Shoes.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas