TOO little pressure? Too much pressure (cue The Selecter for those of a certain age)?
These are the questions that meteorologist Doctor James Stagg must get answers to – and pretty damn quickly – in David Haig’s magisterial play Pressure, now showing at Park Theatre (Finsbury, North London).
Set in a dingy room inside the bowels of Southwick House, Portsmouth (supreme headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Forces), Stagg is brought in to provide an answer to an almost impossible question: will the weather on Monday 5 June 1944 be sufficiently becalmed so that the biggest amphibious landing in history can take place and change the course of the Second World War?
It is a task of herculean responsibility. At stake are the lives of 160,000 ground troops, 200,000 naval personnel and many more besides. It is a role not helped by his American colleague Colonel Irving Krick, nor by the lack of effective meteorological forecasting tools at his disposal.
While Stagg is a dour Scotsman who goes about his work meticulously, Krick is full of self-confidence. Gung-ho is his watchword. Jet Stream? What Jet Stream? The quicker the troops are landed, the sooner the war will be over.
Stagg is concerned that a number of huge low pressure systems will make a Monday landing impossible. Krick, preferring to draw on meteorological parallels with the past, is convinced that the high pressure heading north from the Azores will sweep all before it, making a landing feasible.
It is a battle of wills – the methodical Stagg versus the brazen Krick.
Ultimately, it is General Eisenhower – with a little help from a gaggle of British and American commanders – who must decide. Like Stagg and Krick they are all holed up in Southwick House. A pressure cooker of an atmosphere.
Despite the plethora of weather maps and endless meteorological readings phoned in from various parts of the Atlantic, it all makes for rather compelling viewing. A race against time with the regular sound of warplanes above Southwick House a reminder of the war that is being waged across Europe and threatening the country’s very future.
There are side issues, most notably Stagg’s concern over the imminent birth of his second child (wife Elizabeth had complications first time around, caused by high blood pressure). Pressure, too much pressure.
There is also a love interest between Eisenhower and Lieutenant Kay Summersby, his driver and personal assistant. But ultimately it is Stagg’s assessment of the weather – and whether a landing on the beaches of Nazi occupied France is possible, even if it is delayed – that drives the play forward to its suspenseful end.
Pressure is littered with magnificent performances. Malcolm Sinclair is a stupendous ‘Ike’ Eisenhower. Physically commanding and mentally strong but not without his soft side. His sharing of an orange with Summersby behind locked doors is a rare tender moment in a room where for the most part you could cut the atmosphere with a knife.
He also cares passionately about the troops under his command, especially those of the 101st Airborne Division.
Laura Rogers is exquisite as Summersby. Devoted to Ike. Smitten with Ike. Indeed, she does not want the war to end because it will break them up. Plummy and sexy. Britain at its best although maybe that should be Ireland given that is where she was born.
As for David Haig as Stagg, he is quite brilliant. Intense until right at the end when he shares a little whisky with Ike and Summersby.
With a strong supporting cast – including super cameos from Michael Mackenzie as a non-stop talking phone engineer and Mark Jax as a ‘go and get ‘em’ General ‘Tooey’ Spaatz – Pressure is a monumental triumph.
Catch it while you can at the Park – it runs until April 28. It will then transfer to the Ambassadors Theatre in London’s West End on June 6. How apt.