No topic is dearer to the British than the weather. Where would we be without it, and what would we talk about? How brilliant of David Haig to write a full-length play about the nation’s characteristic obsession.
His riveting play Pressure – which began life at the Edinburgh Festival in 2014, transferred to the Minerva in Chichester, then to the West End via London’s Park Theatre – pivots on one of the key events of World War II: the D-Day landings in Normandy in June 1944 and the crucial role the weather played in it. Set in the headquarters of the Allied expeditionary force in Southwick House near Portsmouth, the biggest amphibious landing in world history is about to determine the outcome of the war – its success or failure predicated on the unpredictability of the weather.
The decision to proceed or not to proceed rests solely with General Dwight Eisenhower, who, to help him make the most important decision of his life, has recruited two renowned meteorologists: a dour Scotsman called James Stagg and Irving Krick, a brash young American Colonel.
Stagg, who understands the perplexing vicissitudes of British weather the way a husband understands the moods of his wife, is certain that, despite the clement weather on June 2, conditions will have deteriorated appallingly by June 5, the day of the landings. The landing crafts would capsize and the loss of lives by drowning alone would be absolutely staggering.
Colonel Krick, however, disagrees. He was one of the first people ever to complete a master's degree in meteorology and was also responsible for advising producer David O. Selznick on the best day, weather-wise, to shoot the burning of Atlanta sequence for Gone With the Wind. Eisenhower trusts him implicitly.
Yet for Eisenhower on June 2, 1944, it isn’t just a matter of weather, but also of whether: whether he should believe Stagg, whom he’s never met before, or whether he should believe Krick, whom he knows well. If conflict is the essence of good drama, Pressure certainly has it by the barrel load. Except, you may genuinely ask, how can there possibly be conflict if you already know the outcome?
Haig supplies the answer, and it’s a testament to his skill as a dramatist that he somehow manages to keep you engrossed all the way. He does this through the quality of his writing, the vividness and humanity of the characterisations, the ability to turn potentially dry meteorological data into fascinating conundrums, and the way in which he manages to peel off the outwardly dry, unappealing and even rude quality we first encounter in Stagg, turning him into a deeply feeling, well-rounded father and husband.
Though science is the play’s motivating source, the all-important human factor, embodied by two female characters – one of whom we see, the other whom we don’t – soon emerges. The one we don’t see is Mrs. Stagg, James’ wife. When the play begins she’s in hospital, about to give birth to her second child. Her husband is understandably concerned with her welfare, especially as she has high blood pressure and her first birth was touch-and-go. It’s a convenient human-interest situation, and it offers a much-needed slice of gear-shifting among the predominant talk of soldiers, weather and war.
The woman we do see is Kay Summersby, Eisenhower’s long-serving chauffeur, aide, confidante and, possibly, lover. Her warmth, compassion and understanding is particularly evident in a wonderful scene is which she comforts an emotionally distraught Stagg who is visibly breaking down through lack of information about his wife’s condition. (Small quibble: Why, for security reasons, was Stagg, unable to telephone the hospital, when towards the end of the play, the hospital was able to call him with news that his wife had given birth to a son?)
All the performances under John Dove’s finely tuned direction resonate impressively. Author Haig is pitch-perfect as the anxiety suppressed, seemingly tenacious Stagg. It’s a bespoke role for an actor with such surface unflappability. Malcolm Sinclair is brilliant as the mood-swinging Eisenhower – arguably the most pressurised man on the planet at that moment in time. Philip Cairns is swaggeringly convincing as the American meterologist Krick. And Laura Rogers is radiant throughout as Kay Summersby, a stabling presence who keeps her cool when all around people are losing theirs.
The unglamorous, makeshift office-cum-living quarters, with its wall-filling synoptic weather charts, is by set designer Colin Richmond. High praise to all involved in a play that the supreme craftsman Terence Rattigan would have certainly admired.