Writer: David Haig
Director: John Dove
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
In the same week that the Royal Air Force celebrates the 100thanniversary of its establishment as an independent service, uniting the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service, David Haig presents his new play about the unusual role of RAF personnel in the run-up to D-Day at the Park Theatre. With renewed interest in the many ‘forgotten’ contributions to twentieth-century warfare, Pressure makes a compelling case for honouring the weatherman.
Its early June 1944 and the combined allied forces, led by General Eisenhower, are about to launch the major counterattack that will signal the end of the war. With just 24 hours until manoeuvres must begin, RAF Group Captain James Stagg needs to predict the weather for 3 days’ time as accurately as he can. Seeing more than just meteorological storms ahead, Stagg insists D-Day must be postponed but his American counterpart disagrees. With thousands of lives in the balance and one chance only, whose forecast is right?
Combining two of Britain’s favourite conversational topics, the Second World War and the weather, Haig’s play, which has already announced a West End transfer, is a fascinating and engaging drama about the heavy responsibility of wartime decision-making. Each scene takes the action forward by a few hours, increasing the tension as local weather-reports continually alter the state of play. And while the forecasting terminology such as anticyclones and jet streams may baffle, the effect on the drama is always crystal clear – rather like the poker scene from Casino Royale, you know its high stakes even if you don’t know exactly how the game works.
But Pressure is far more than a series of crescendos, and Haig has used the play’s title to examine all kinds of burdens placed on service personnel in wartime. Through the character of Eisenhower in particular, we’re given a sense of the heavy personal responsibility for the imminent effect his decisions will have on the young men in his command, and for all the pointing at maps and arguing over isobars, the consequence will always be the deaths of many men, either today, or, if there are storms, tomorrow. It is this personal connection that makes Haig’s play feel tangible and human.
Taking on the lead role of Stagg, Haig presents a man driven by science and certain that his extensive experience of the British climate, combined with his intuition should be enough to convince others. Initially abrupt and demanding, Stagg is unafraid to speak openly in front of senior officers, challenging them almost to the point of insurrection. But Haig softens the edges with a performance that reveals the man’s essential passion for his subject, tempered with a running concern for the birth of his child, bringing out a constant conflict between duty and family.
Malcolm Sinclair’s Eisenhower is drawn with equal nuance, able to command a room and willing to make the tough decisions, but somehow haunted by the consequences he knows must come. Far more than a gung-ho General, Sinclair suggests the human connection Eisenhower needs, particularly from Kay Summersby, to maintain his motivation, as well as a subtle guilt for being safe behind the lines. But there is steel too, an ability to make swift and cruel decisions, which the final moments reveal.
Laura Rogers is a very capable Summersby, an efficient and dedicated secretary and driver who makes herself indispensable but seems rather lonely. And there’s good support from the surrounding cast who play a range of service personnel, presenting a rarely portrayed image of Allied co-operation between all three services – army, navy and air force – while hinting at the British fear of needless slaughter, a hangover from the First World War, which became such a feature of the second.
Pressure does die down towards the end with a notable shift in focus to a slightly overlong section on personal strife which makes for a rather quiet end to what has been a frantic drama, which might play better in the middle. Nonetheless, just when you thought there was nothing new to say about D-Day, Haig has shone a light on a little-known aspect of the preparations, led by one of the many unsung heroes, an RAF weatherman.
Runs until 28 April 2018 | Image: Robert Day