David Haig’s play Pressure, first seen in this production on a national tour in 2014, is a Second World War suspense drama that hangs on Britain’s unpredictable weather. It is based on a little-known but crucial story behind the D-Day Allied invasion of Europe in 1944, the biggest amphibious force ever mustered. Chief meteorologist RAF Group Captain James Stagg has to try to predict if the weather will be good enough for Operation Overlord to go ahead as planned on June 5th. He thinks it probably won’t be, but can he persuade Supreme Commander General Eisenhower that he is right? With hundreds of thousands of lives and the course of the war at stake, this may be the most important weather forecast ever made. No pressure, then.
Spoiler Alert: the invasion did go ahead successfully (though on June 6th), leading to the defeat of Nazi Germany and the end of the war in Europe. Yes, really. The problem with a historical thriller like this, of course, is that anyone with half-decent general knowledge will know what happens in the end. But Haig does an excellent job in making us forget the outcome temporarily, as we get caught up in the intensity of the moment, the pressure increasing with the approaching deadline. Though a little long, Pressure is good, old-fashioned storytelling. But this is no flag-waving, jingoistic exercise; rather it’s a touching tribute to dedicated professionalism.
The action is all set in Southwick House in Portsmouth, the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force. When Stagg arrives he is shocked by the lack of facilities in his office, and brusquely orders the staff, including Kay Summersby, Eisenhower’s British chauffeur/secretary, to improve them. This dour Scot has no time for social niceties or small talk with just three days to go before the planned invasion and so much important work to do. Moreover, the U.S. Air Force meteorologist Colonel Irving P. Krick disagrees with Stagg’s gloomy prognosis and believes the current fine weather will continue to June 5th. With Eisenhower wanting very clear evidence to postpone the operation, Stagg has it all to do.
Although there is quite a bit of talk about isobars and jet streams, Pressure is far from drily technical. At its core is a conflict between British cautious pragmatism and American can-do optimism, with the reserved Stagg doggedly sticking to his guns against the bullishly confident Krick in a professional rivalry that brews up a storm as they employ diverging approaches to forecasting. Stagg also has a humanising back story: his wife is imminently expecting their second child with dangerously high blood pressure (yes, even more pressure), though this is not entirely convincingly portrayed. And Summersby’s secret, intimate liaison with Eisenhower (though based on fact) seems a bit undercooked.
There is plenty of humour in the play to relieve some of the high (or low) pressure. The cultural clashes between the understated Brits and the extrovert Yanks are nicely done, including a comparison of the contrasting merits of rugby union and American football. And, of course, there is much laughter of recognition when the subject of dodgy British summer weather comes up, with Stagg having the advantage of long-suffering native knowledge: “Ten o’clock in the morning it’s baking hot, the beach is packed. By midday, there’s a howling wind. By two o’clock, the rain is horizontal, but by four o’clock the sun is beating down again.”
Director John Dove does a good job in maintaining tension with a frenetic bustle of people entering at all times of the day and night with the latest meteorological readings, but he also lends a quiet intimacy to the more reflective moments. Colin Richmond’s design is dominated by large weather charts of the Atlantic and Europe, which are constantly being updated, as well as barometers and other equipment all geared towards achieving maximum possible accuracy as the clock ticks relentlessly.
Haig himself gives a persuasive, unsentimental but ultimately moving performance as Stagg, a man who puts duty to his country before attention to his family, but whose stiff upper lip struggles with the strain of getting things right. Malcolm Sinclair is superbly authoritative as Eisenhower, commanding the stage, making the Big Decisions, but simultaneously feeling a paternal responsibility for the “boys” putting their lives on the line.
Laura Rogers also impresses as the resourceful, level-headed Summersby, acting as sympathetic confidante but also nervous about the break-up of her relationship with Eisenhower and her “army family” when the war ends. And Philip Cairns gives plenty of vim to the upbeat, kick-ass Krick, once a consultant on the outdoor shooting of Gone With The Wind who here mistakenly anticipates a Hollywood-style outcome based on unreliable historical weather records. A recently announced West End transfer, opening on the 74th anniversary of D-Day – weather permitting, of course – is thoroughly deserved for this old-fashioned, but excellently acted drama.
Pressure is at the Park Theatre until April 28th. For more details, click here.