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Review of Pressure at The Ambassadors Theatre

Laura Rogers & David Haig in Pressure. Photo by Robert Day
Laura Rogers & David Haig in Pressure. Photo by Robert Day

There’s that iconic 90’s song by Crowded House – you remember it? – Always Take The Weather With You: whereas the song was not necessarily based on the central character of Pressure there is no doubt that Dr James Stagg was exactly that guy – someone who always took the weather with him. Even as a child he was wondering where the rain came from and by the time he arrived at the momentous events of June 1944 weather was his all-consuming passion, he was the world’s leading climatological expert and General Eisenhower needed him to explain what the weather would be like on June 5th for the Normandy Landings of D Day. And being a big, brash, bullish American 5 star General, Eisenhower was not best pleased when told it would be stormy.

Thus in Pressure, we have, in essence, a thriller. It’s a thriller to which we already know, historically, what the outcome will be so it’s not so much a whodunnit as a howdunnit. And if you thought a two-and-a-half hour play
about the weather would be a bit of a snooze-fest then you would be wrong.

This is a compelling, engrossing, intriguing drama, an historical document that explores the whys and the wherefores alongside some intense and illuminating characterisation. D Day happened but it so nearly didn’t because of the adverse weather conditions and was in fact postponed from the 5th to the 6th of June, the small window, due to tide and moon, in which it had to get done. David Haig’s minutely researched, meticulously constructed play gives us an extraordinary insight into how Eisenhower braved the elements, Britannia Ruled the waves and Stagg’s weather eye spotted the unexpected meteorological shift in air pressure that delivered the right conditions for invasion. It was lucky – but you always need a lucky General on your side: as well as a lucky genius of a weatherman. Not so much Operation Overlord, one might surmise, as Operation Weatherlord.

Writer Haig also takes on the role of Group Captain James Stagg, usually referred to as Dr. Stagg as he confesses he’s not been near an aircraft. Stagg is an intense and dour Scot – an in-betweener (neither highlander nor
lowlander), an interloper (having had epaulettes thrust upon him) and an idiot-shunner who lurks on the irascible side of irritation – irritation, primarily, with anyone who doesn’t agree with his analyses – including Eisenhower. As well as knowing his subject Haig knows his meteorologist and he gives us an in-depth portrayal of a man who is doing his job, is doing his job well under trying circumstances and is doing his job that, at that moment in time, was arguably the biggest job in the world. 160,000 lives depended on his acute and intimate knowledge of that quirky British institution – the weather. Haig is excellent, not least when he has to deal with the non-climatological pressure of his wife going into labour ten miles down the road from his base at Southwick House – which he is not allowed to leave (along with everyone else) due to keeping the plans for D Day secret. Under pressure about air pressure and under pressure about his wife’s blood pressure Stagg is near to breaking point and Haig expertly draws us into the moment when his life and sanity are hanging by a thread.

Inevitably, in a High Command drama such as this, Stagg is surrounded by a gaggle of indent-i-kit military types who bleat disapproval or give reluctant deference as each twist in the saga demands. It’s a good support group for Haig, a kind of Baroque canvas backdrop that puts in relief his individuality and non-military background. Eisenhower (Malcolm Sinclair) is suitably blustery, foul-mouthed, hard-nosed and ultimately unsympathetic: in his moving eve-of-St Crispin’s day style speech – a little touch of Ike in the night perhaps – he shows empathy for his men but one can’t help feeling he’s painting war by numbers: there’s a future American President for you.

But the oil that makes this expertise-led, data-driven machine of a play tick, just as her character does with the Allied Command, is Laura Rogers as Lieutenant Kay Summersby, secretary, driver, mechanic and dogsbody plus
Eisenhower’s confidante and possible lover (the jury’s still out – and here we have a hints-only partial-hog tease). Kay befriends Stagg, supports him in his quest for meteorological nirvana and acts as intermediary with his hospitalised wife – leaving the base on a mercy mission with Eisenhower’s express permission. Rogers is supreme, lifting this play above the ordinary to the rarefied heights of intense emotional drama, never sentimental, never over-playing or wanting to steal the show, just a carefully crafted delineation of Forties’ War Girl and all that it entailed. Rogers is poise and stoicism personified: her response to her final dissing by Eisenhower, akin to Prince Hal’s rejection of Falstaff in Henry IV pt 2, is an extraordinary moving moment: Kay’s stiff upper lip quivers heartrendingly for a moment or two before she regains her composure and gets on with the war. An outstanding performance by Rogers – never more so than in the tenderly sub-seductive scene with
Eisenhower that begins the second half.

So Pressure is a play about weather, it’s a play about war and its a play about confidence in one’s own ability which James Stagg had in spades. He couldn’t actually change the weather – only God and Winston could do that – but he sure as hell could change people’s minds which ultimately saved a catastrophe.

4 stars

Review by Peter Yates

D-Day, June 1944. The Allied forces led by General Eisenhower are poised to launch. 350,000 lives are at stake and the decision of whether or not to attack comes down to the most important weather forecast of all time.

Olivier Award-winner David Haig plays Scottish meteorologist, Group Captain James Stagg, in this true story and critical smash hit, from Chichester Festival Theatre and Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh.

Booking Period: 6 June – 1 September 2018
Ambassadors Theatre
West Street, London, WC2H 9ND

Author

  • Peter Yates

    Peter has a long involvement in the theatrical world as playwright, producer, director and designer. His theatre company Random Cactus has taken many shows to the Edinburgh Fringe, the London Fringe and elsewhere and he has been associated with the Wireless Theatre Company since its inception where his short play Lie Detector can be heard: Wireless Theatre Company.

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