Ambassadors Theatre – until 1 September 2018
As topics for plays go, the ins and outs of weather forecasting is not one that, on paper, sounds particularly thrilling. Even for a nation as obsessed with the weather as Britain is, it seems a bit much. But, to borrow a phrase from the footsport, plays aren’t staged on paper and sometimes the most unlikely sounding ideas turn out to be some of the best.
Pressure, the play by actor David Haig with his playwright hat on, is a case in point. It tells the story of the rival British and American weather forecasting teams employed by the Allied forces in the run-up to D Day. Their different interpretations of the various, technical signs (including, of course, air pressure) in the days preceding the initial favoured date for the major assault on the French beaches leads them to entirely opposite conclusions about whether it should go ahead or not. History ensues, so to speak.
The ultimate triumph of Pressure is this: it takes a show about the jargon-heavy technicalities of weather forecasting and a historical event that everyone knows the outcome of and somehow makes a funny, engaging and unexpectedly tense play.
It’s small-scale wizardry on Haig’s part I think. The fact he chooses to focus not on the war itself but on the personal and unknown story of the British lead forecaster, James Stagg, and his relationship with Commander of the Allied Forces, Ike Eisenhower, is exactly the right one to achieve it. It allows him to bring in some personal subplots relating to the two men too, which are lightly and touchingly handled (I particularly enjoyed the thread about Stagg’s pregnant wife’s high blood pressure – the reference to another type of pressure is clever and not at all overdone).
His characters are really vivid, well drawn and complex. Stagg softens from initial rude academic to genuine, touching human. Eisenhower is not only the upright historical figure (his relationship with his female secretary, Kay Summersby, is really well written). Summersby herself is strong but nuanced, a refreshingly complex portrayal of a military woman in this period. The dialogue is quick and witty but also contains some much heavier passages when the war itself does encroach on the action – a section about Eisenhower’s personal grief at the death of his child contrasting with his ability to send tens of thousands of men into combat at huge and obvious risk to their lives is beautiful. Tension builds through short and snappy scenes, often with little dialogue beyond contrasting strings of numbers being barked into various phones (which works much better than it sounds). If I were to pick at it, I think a few judicious cuts could be made here and there to bring the length of the first act in particular down by ten minutes or so, but really this is enormously accomplished and enjoyable stuff.
It looks cool too. Colin Richmond’s design, with huge weather charts dominating the otherwise pretty sparse set, is evocative and effective. The way the charts are changed on the fly so quickly is also super impressive! It’s beautifully lit by Tim Mitchell and the use of his lighting and Andrzej Goulding’s video design to show the change in weather (and the action of the war) in the just barely visible but somehow dominant window of the set is great. Otherwise, it’s pretty much a straight down the line production, with nothing fantastically innovative going on, but it is none the worse for that. Everything that is going on is absolutely rock solid.
For many people, self included, the major draw of this production is neither writing nor production but cast and, specifically, David Haig himself who pops his actor hat back on to play James Stagg. And he is, as ever, fantastic. His Stagg is awkward and quiet but tenacious and principled. He’s a fish out of water (‘not a military man’, as every other character observes) with hidden depth that unveils itself gradually and unexpectedly as the play progresses. There’s a subtle physicality about his performance too – a slight stoop, a nervous tilt of the head – which I absolutely loved. It’s his face on the poster for a reason, y’know. However, his light is almost stolen by Malcolm Sinclair’s Eisenhower who is not only supremely charismatic and likeable but surprisingly deep and sympathetic too. His performance really captures the complexities and contradictions of the position of the head of any army. Adding some much needed feminist sass, and in some ways dominating both Stagg and Eisenhower, is Laura Rogers’ Summersby who also brings a good deal of heart to the play. She plays both the archetype strong WW2 woman and the, like, actual real woman aspects of her part equally well and certainly makes an impact beyond her stage time.
However implausible its set up may be, I really enjoyed Pressure. It’s so much more engaging and fun and gripping than it has any right to be and is a case study in just really superb acting. Regardless of how interesting you think it sounds, the joy of watching David Haig and Malcolm Sinclair slug it out is 100% worth the price of a ticket.
Pressure is at the Ambassadors Theatre until 1st September.
I sat in R4 in the stalls for this one – slightly obstructed due to the overhang of the circle but otherwise perfectly fine – and paid a princely £15 for the privilege. Highly worth it.