Pressure – Richmond Theatre Review
In June 1944, the Allies waited on a weather forecast that would change the course of history. Pressure, the phenomenal new play by Olivier Award and FIPA Award winner David Haig, explores the crucial hours in the lead up to D-Day.
Pressure tells the story of Scottish meteorologist Captain James Stagg (Haig), chief meteorological advisor to the supreme commander of the allied forces in Europe. Tasked with predicting the weather on the day of the most important Allied offensive of World War II, there is no room for failure. However, weather forecasting in Northern Europe is tricky and the weight of American expectations is heavy. When Stagg predicts the worst possible conditions, and indeed the opposite of what American meteorologist Irving P. Krick (Philip Cairns) is forecasting, the future of the D-Day offensive rests on the words of one man.
Pressure is a beautiful piece of theatre, conforming tightly to a classical structure and exploring themes of war, love, loss and science. At heart, Pressure is all about conflict. It contrasts Britain and America, new technology and old, Scottish grumpiness and Hollywood magnetism, what people want to hear and the truth. There is also a lot of play with the varying meanings of the word ‘pressure’. Measuring surface pressure is of course a key part of weather forecasting, but there is also job pressure, family pressures – and even a mention of blood pressure.
The acting across the board is winningly authentic; meaning the audience keenly feels the tension on stage. When General Eisenhower (Malcolm Sinclair) is angry, one can hear a pinprick. When one character receives some bad personal news, the audience is visibly fearful. While by no means a comedy, the jokes – usually delivered the fantastic Sinclair as Eisenhower – are sharp and well executed. As far as I could tell, not a single one fell flat.
Haig works wonders with protagonist James Stagg, who initially presents as a very straightforward, grumpy and uncompromising Scotsman. During the course of the play, Haig peels back the layers to reveal a man who is sensitive, intelligent and extremely passionate about his work and family. In direct contrast is his American counterpart, the charismatic Hollywood meteorologist Irving P. Krick. He is friendly, funny, and once worked on the Hollywood hit Gone With The Wind. Haig and Cairns dutifully deliver the conflict that comes from this extreme mismatch.
Despite being set in a period that traditionally tells few female stories, Pressure makes an effort to include a leading female who feels like more than a token inclusion. Lieutenant Kay Summerby (Laura Rogers) is strong-willed, talented and a crucial cog in the Allied efforts, limited only by the period in which she lives. Her compassionate influence is much needed to balance the many stubborn men in her vicinity, although her main impact is to prop-up the men who are too pigheaded to do their work themselves.
The action all takes place in Stagg’s makeshift office, with some fantastic staging decisions and props. One major prop is a giant replaceable map that shows evolving weather patterns throughout the play, offering audiences a visual insight into the meteorologists’ decision-making process.
Another important part of the set is the use of full-length windows, demonstrating the weather outside. When storms finally strike, it is a pivotal and powerful moment of vindication in the play, and beautifully staged. There is sudden rain, a crackle of thunder, and lightning like divine intervention. This is the sort of moment that could easily be cheesy or over-the-top. It is nothing but effective.
Up until this point, I have only positives to say about Pressure. Despite – and possibly because of – this moment of theatrical and storytelling brilliance, which comes mid second part, the remainder of the play feels muted. The pressure lessens and the play begins to drag as Stagg, Summerby and Eisenhower discuss personal woes. While it mimics the calm that follows the sudden release of pressure, the change of pace at this point makes it hard not to fidget.
Pressure is a fantastically complex play. It highlights a fascinating moment in history (and indeed, a fascinating man) with sharp dialogue, well-defined characters and clever staging.
Thanks also to Susy Brett who attended for us and guest posted. Find her normal twitter adventures at @susybumblebee