Pressure, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, Review:
**** (4 stars)
It seems improbable that weather forecasting could be the subject of a drama full of tension and suspense – but this proved the case tonight with David Haig’s Pressure. Even though the basic story line is a fact of history, the unfolding drama held the audience gripped.
Dr James Stagg has been sent to join General Eisenhower’s staff as part of the preparation for the D-Day landings in Normandy. There are only a few suitable dates with the correct combination of tides and hours of daylight, and the weather on the chosen date has to be good – the invasion force mainly consists of flat-bottomed craft, which will capsize in rough seas and high winds, while excessive cloud cover and poor visibility will mean that the air support will be useless.
Dr Stagg, a meteorologist born in Dalkeith, has vast experience of the British climate and the vagaries of its weather: he is aware that what is going on in the upper levels of the atmosphere materially affects the speed and direction of weather fronts lower down – but meteorology is a relatively new science, and other meteorologists disagree with him. Stagg is convinced that although the weather in early June is hot and sunny, the day picked for the landing will be one of storm force winds, high seas, and poor visibility. His views are opposed by his American counterpart, Colonel Irving Krick, who is convinced that the weather fronts will behave in the pattern shown in past years and the day will be fine: he has no truck with Stagg’s theory about the effect of the newly-discovered Atlantic jet stream.
Dr Stagg is a Scot with an almost Quakerly respect for truth, and well aware that a wrong forecast will mean sending thousands of men to their deaths. He is under extreme pressure from General Eisenhower, who is in command of the Allied forces, and the commanders of those various forces, all of whom wish to hear that the chosen day, Monday June 5th 1944, will have the required good weather. Stagg refuses to buckle, and continues to express his belief that the halcyon weather will break and a storm of considerable magnitude will make the D-day landing impossible.
Additional pressure comes from the inadequately-equipped room to which Stagg is allocated and the friction between himself and Kay Summersby, Eisenhower’s driver and gofer, who finds Stagg’s brusque Scots manner off-putting. In addition, Stagg’s wife, Liz, is heavily pregnant with their second child and showing alarmingly similar symptoms to those which nearly killed both her and their first child. Worry about Liz is driving him past the point of coherence as he struggles with his fears for her and the child and his knowledge of the extreme importance of his accurate interpretation of all the meteorological information that is being gathered at his request.
David Haig has written a gripping play, and is outstanding as the quiet man who displays deference to his commanding officer but is determined to speak his uncomfortable and unwanted truth despite the strength of the opposition. Malcolm Sinclair’s Eisenhower is commanding but also human, well aware of the consequences of the decisions that he alone can take and the potential cost in lives lost, exploding with frustration when Stagg refuses to budge from his position, but quick to acknowledge Stagg’s integrity and the magnitude of his contribution to the ultimate success of the D-Day landings. Laura Rogers’ Kay Summersby treads a
fine tightrope between efficiency and emotion, gradually revealing her devotion to Eisenhower, her growing understanding of Stagg’s manner and his extra burdens, and her realisation of how empty her life will become once the war is over.
Once the D-Day landings are under way, there is a sudden enormous drop in pressure, a terrible feeling of anticlimax that is brilliantly portrayed in the almost banal conversation between Stagg, Eisenhower, and Summersby as they wait for news of the landings. The intimacy engendered by the high-pressure situation is followed by withdrawal into more conventional behaviour, and soon Stagg is left standing by the wayside as the war machine moves on across the Channel and into Europe: he stands alone, gazing at the pressure chart that records the accuracy his momentous predictions as the lights dim on his brief moments in the eye of the storm…
The excellent cast were greeted with loud, enthusiastic applause. This is a play that will grip and entertain, and maybe also encourage consideration of how far one might oneself be able to withstand pressure to conform to what one knows in one’s heart to be wrong…
The Touring Consortium Theatre Company Presents Pressure, runs until Saturday 17th February for Tickets go to: http://www.edtheatres.com/pressure
Review by Mary Woodward