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Pressure

by on 21 March 2018

Forecast for History

Pressure

By David Haig

Touring Consortium Theatre Co at Richmond Theatre until 24th March

Review by Mark Aspen

Umbrella, overcoat, sun-block? We take weather forecasts for granted, and in truth most of our needs, unless we are a farmer or a seafarer, are pretty trivial, notwithstanding the Beast from the East, which for most meant an extra spray can of windscreen de-icer. But what if the lives of 350,000 men and the whole history of freedom in Europe depended on a weather forecast? This was just the case in the historic opening days of June 1944, as the D-Day counter-invasion of Europe was poised to be unleashed. The knife-edge decisions of those few days, days which changed the world, are the subject of the aptly named play, Pressure, directed by John Dove, with which Touring Consortium is currently finishing its national tour at Richmond Theatre this week.

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Less than 72 hours before the planned date for the D Day landings which were due to open Operation Overlord, the allied advance back into western Europe, a Scottish research meteorologist, Group Captain Dr James Stagg was sent by Churchill to advise the allied supreme commander, General Eisenhower, on the weather conditions predicted on the day, a forecast that would affect the success or failure of the largest seaborne invasion in history.

The action takes place in one room of a command centre somewhere on the south coast of England. Colin Richmond’s period accurate design is a grand room, now reduced by wartime civil-service drab paint and anti-blast scrim tape on the windows. But the dramatic achievement is the synoptic weather charts, covering the whole back wall, which almost become actors in this fast-moving drama. Tim Mitchell’s lighting design also uses these as time-line projection screens, but the set lighting immediately transforms the room from claustrophobic during the times when air raid precautions are in force to expansive at the weather is observed across the Downs through huge French windows.

 

A drama about meteorology may seem unlike, and indeed one of the characters in the play says “Weathermen are traditionally regarded as a bit boring” (a big “but” follows her statement). However, the title of the play drops the clue as to how it works, and work it does, for the pressure is on all round and especially throughout the frenetic first half. There is atmospheric pressure of course, barometric readouts rattle through the dialogue like hailstones, but for Stagg there is the pressure of making the most significant weather forecast in history, pressure exacerbated a family crisis.

The first half of the play is ultra-high paced. It zings along with an urgency propelled by an anxious soundtrack featuring music by sound designer and composer, Phillip Pinsky, a constant edgy ostinato. However, the hectic acting of the whole ensemble, fast, fraught and frantic builds an almost unbearable tension. (There are more spot-timed opening and closing of doors than I have seen in many farces!) Indeed without this pace and tension, the text would risk becoming repetitive: with it, it is highly exciting.

David Haig, who is an Olivier award-winning actor and an award-winning author, is both the writer of Pressure and plays the principal role of James Stagg, in a polished and powerful performance as a brusque and hyperactive scientist preoccupied with the task in hand, that of applying his advanced analytical approach to the most difficult decision of his life, and of 350,000 other lives, whether the prevailing conditions would favour the invasion, or make it impossibly hazardous.

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Stagg’s decision is not made any easier by the assistant who is seconded to him from the US army, Col. Irving P. Krick, whose claim to fame was as Hollywood’s meteorological consultant in films such as Gone with the Wind. Unfortunately for Stagg, Krick is not only implicitly trusted in his meteorological knowledge by General Eisenhower, it seems on the basis of correctly forecasting the ideal weather conditions for burning the fictional mock-up set of Atlanta, but that he is his high-school buddy. Krick merely extrapolates from archives of past weather patterns, moreover only at ground level. He does not understand the complexity of the weather factors governing the north-west Atlantic, which Stagg insists are controlled by events high in the stratosphere, including the newly discovered jet-stream. “There is no such thing as the jet-stream”, states Krick, while Stagg urges him to think in three-dimensions. Hence they are at loggerheads right from the start. Phillip Cairns gives a clearly defined performance as the arrogant, insolent and intransigent Krick, much a child of his culture, as to be fair Stagg is of his own. Stagg explains that “there is nothing predictable about the British weather”, but forecasts gale-force conditions for the Monday of the planned invasion, whereas Krick predicts a continuation of fair summer weather.

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The towering figure, in all senses, is all this is that of General Dwight Eisenhower, known to all and sundry as Ike, whom we initially see as brash, bullying and blasphemous. Malcolm Sinclair plays Ike with a self-assured aplomb, as the resolute military man, but one with enough acumen to know when to change his mind.

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The catalyst to much of the development of the plot (as maybe in historical fact) is Kay Summersby, the personal secretary, chauffeuse and factotum to Ike, played by Laura Rogers as an attractive young woman with cut-glass accent, with a sharp mind and resilient determination. The play leaves ambiguous the relationship between Ike and Summersby (although in her late autobiography, she revealed that they were having an affair). The relationship is hinted at: a one point they intimately share an orange, and later Summersby lovingly covers the sleeping Ike.

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The second half of the play calms the freneticism a little, but tension continues to mount, not only as the preparations for the invasion reach their climax, but in the sub-plots. These include the parallel events in Stagg’s life as his wife, who is about to go into labour, is hospitalised with pre-natal hypertension. So Elizabeth Stagg’s high blood pressure becomes an off-stage metaphor for the meteorological pressures and for the military pressures acting out on stage. It is here that we see another side to Stagg as his professional self-confidence takes a knock and he even contemplates deserting in order to be with this wife. Intervention by Summersby however saves the day … and as it turns out D-Day.

One of the strengths of this play is the development of the characters (both in the script and the acting) into full three-dimension personalities. David Haig’s portrayal of Stagg is particularly strong in this respect. We see his detachment as he frets about his wife, obvious in the physicality of his acting, his mental torment as the pressure on him grows, and then the relief when he hears, via Summersby, the news of the birth of his child, and the contemporaneous acceptance of his recommendation to postpone the invasion for 24 hours while stormy weather passes.

Equally, we see the complex character of Eisenhower emerge, a weaker side in his succumbing to Summersby’s charms, a softer side in granting a short absence for her to visit Elizabeth Stagg in hospital, a genuine concern for “his boys” going to the front, and an admission that “I couldn’t command an army if I did not believe in God”.
Kay Summersby’s character is rounded out, when she explains how she feels at home with “Ike’s little family”, his entourage of staff-officers who have accompanied them during the campaign, and how she does not want the war to end and to leave this way of life.

Historically both Summersby and Stagg accompanied Eisenhower into Europe with Operation Overlord, but Haig’s script truncates this happy ending (if happy it is) with Gogol-esque ruthlessness. Ike ditches both Stagg and Summersby!

The dozen-strong cast work together seamlessly as an ensemble, with strong acting all round. Chris Porter makes a very starchy Air Chief Marshall Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, who had been a Battle of Britain commander. There is some well differentiated doubling. Mark Jax plays both the unbending US Army Air Force General “Tooey” Spaatz, and Commander Franklin, a Royal Navy officer. There is even greater differentiation in Michael Mackenzie’s Admiral Bertram “Bertie” Ramsay, very stiff upper-lip public school, with the Yorkshire telephone installer confined to the command centre.

Pressure is a totally gripping play, tense and exciting. It is does not however fall into the trap of being all gung-ho, but examines many issues that come to the fore under the pressure of war: sacrifice vs self, family vs country, society vs the individual, and freedom vs tyranny. However, it does leave one to reflect how things have changed in the past 74 years. Then the whole country was united in striving to free Britain from the tyranny of European hegemony, moreover millions, including those 350,000 men waiting to cross the Channel on D-Day, were willing to give their lives. Now only just over half the population strives for freedom from European dominance.

However, in Pressure the overarching paired conflict is that of man vs nature. We are all in thrall to nature and certainly to the power of the weather. Even our feeble efforts against the Beast from the East pale into insignificance with the events of Tuesday 6th June 1944.

As James Stagg says “How could the weather ever be boring? It defines us; it feeds us: it keeps us alive … it can destroy us.”

Mark Aspen
March 2018

Photography by Robert Day

From → Drama, Reviews

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