Thursday, 5 April 2018

Theatre review: Pressure

The British obsession with the weather is a long-standing joke that gets referenced a couple of times in David Haig’s play Pressure; attempting to make a thriller out of the weather forecast – and succeeding – must be a new a twist though. Early June 1944 in a secret military base is a good setting to pull it off though: The Allied forces have been planning D-Day for 18 months, and it absolutely has to take place on Monday the 5th of June. To the best of their knowledge they’ve managed to keep the time and location of the landings a secret, but the more time passes the harder it becomes to contain leaks, and everything is set to go on General Eisenhower’s (Malcolm Sinclair) command. Everything except the weather, the one thing they can’t control, and after several weeks of summer they’re hopeful that the Channel will still be clear by Monday. But they need to get the approval of both American and British meteorologists, and the two don’t agree.

Haig plays Scottish scientist Dr James Stagg, who has news nobody wants to hear: A series of low pressure systems is crossing the Atlantic, and will reach the Channel at the worst possible time.

A lot hangs on whether he’s right, as sending in the troops during a storm will definitely cause tens of thousands to lose their lives before they even reach Normandy, and the Air Force won’t be able to provide cover in poor visibility; but any postponement of the invasion makes it increasingly difficult to hide the fact that vast forces are waiting to be deployed, risking 18 months’ worth of preparation. What makes Stagg’s job harder is that there’s no consensus with his colleagues: American meteorologists still use a system based on comparing the weather to similar conditions in the past, and his counterpart Colonel Krick (Philip Cairns) insists the clear skies will last through Monday.

Even if you don’t know the date of D-Day off the top of your head (and therefore whether Stagg’s advice is taken) you’ll know its outcome, but Haig and director John Dove still manage to wring a lot of tension out of the story. A lot of this comes from the pressure of the situation, with a group of people who’ve barely slept for days trying to make decisions that’ll affect tens of thousands of lives in the short term, and potentially millions more if the invasion doesn’t turn the tide of the war as intended. As an actor, Haig’s specialty for barely-suppressed panic, usually used to comic effect, here comes in to make it clear his likeable Stagg is always on the brink of very real disaster. This is heightened in his own case by the fact that his wife is about to give birth and he can’t get news about her through the security cordon (although her having high blood pressure as a third meaning for the play’s title bordered on being too arch for me.)

The setting inevitably lends itself to a very male environment but Haig has also provided a good female lead for Laura Rogers, whose Kay is an invaluable support both to Stagg and Eisenhower, while her love for the married General provides an added emotional layer to the play. Having written himself slightly less showy a role than he often plays, Haig has given the fireworks to Sinclair, whose Eisenhower is bombastic and funny, with a ruthless pragmatism waiting to be revealed in a heartbreaking late moment. A period of calm between deployment and news of the invasion’s success goes on a little too long, but the overwhelming impression of Pressure is of keeping the audience on the edge of their seats, which is only more impressive given the play’s peril is coming from maps of isobars.

Pressure by David Haig is booking until the 28th of April at Park Theatre 200; then at the Ambassadors Theatre from the 6th of June to the 1st of September.

Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Robert Day.

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