‘The clock counts down, isobars group, weather fronts advance’
A new play by David Haig. Directed by John Dove.
Pressure blows up a storm of anticipation. Remember the first handbill: warships steaming full ahead out of the binoculars and heading straight for you? If you have seen The Longest Day, the film about D-Day and the Normandy landings on June 6 1944 (but it helps if you’re over 50 and a boy), then remember that scene when a German officer adjusts his Zeiss lenses and sees the invasion force emerge through the dawn mist. Shock and awe big time! Impossible to create much the same on stage? Not if you can read a barometer and like the joke of employing a meteorologist to forecast shooting conditions for Gone with the Wind.
That was filming in 1939 in sunny LA County, whereas Pressure builds over four actual days in 1945 in Southwick House, near Portsmouth. US General Dwight D. Eisenhower is in command but depends upon a plumber’s son from Dalkeith to tell him what the weather is going to do. High winds mean high seas, overturned landing craft and limited air cover. Should he or should he not postpone? And, General, this is British weather we’re talking about.
Enter James Stagg PhD, RAF pro tem, ace meteorologist on tenterhooks. Cue very big charts, 5 to 6 low pressure systems, 2 high ones, flurries of weather reports, black Bakelite telephones, pots of caffeine and introduce the fact that beyond 24 to 36 hours the science of forecasting is all informed guesswork. Where, over there and by the way, are Rommel’s tank divisions? You grasp the fog of war.
The uncomplicated story takes hold very quickly. Stagg’s gloomy, inclement forecast is opposed by his American opposite number, trained in Beverley Hills and on the Italian beachheads. Lt. Kay Summersby and Eisenhower are an established item; conceivably a chaste one. The clock counts down, isobars group, weather fronts advance and Stagg suffers personal agonies of his own.
Writer David Haig is James Stagg and is a near elemental force. He stands awkwardly to attention in front of his commanders but provides reports of such detail that you … are blown away, as it were. This is a man, you sense, who cannot be sure that he is right but will move heaven and earth to move the odds in his favour.
In his life Eisenhower was a lucky general. Malcolm Sinclair plays him on a long fuse and a tight smile, unbowed by his massive responsibility and with a winning streak straight out of the end zone. It is a calm, light time (rare in Pressure) when Stagg tries to explain rugby football to the general who clearly will never understand why the ball is passed backwards.
Laura Rogers as Kay Summersby is a delight. The compassionate role moves her imperturbably to and fro between the five star general, whom she has known for two years, and the private, undemonstrative, scientist and allows both characters to open up. In this reading Summersby is probably David Haig at his most imaginative.
Director John Dove has those fine, clear- sighted Lyceum productions of Arthur Miller plays to his credit. In relation to this current production The Man Who Had All the Luck might as well be Eisenhower’s experience. In Pressure Dove succeeds not simply with pace and control but he also has stage actors in uniform to contend with, which weighs more significantly than civilian costume, and is never to be taken for granted. We are behind the lines, of course, but you never doubt that there is a war going on. There is just the one violent reminder when a plane goes ‘down’ and that seems a little unnecessary given the intensity of the on-stage action. Pressure is a taut, winning drama and you will appreciate the energy and skills of the creative team behind it, from blackout lighting to the drone of bomber formations.
It is, finally, David Haig’s play and is, I think, a major achievement. An exciting, dramatized, chronicle.
Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 8 May)
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