The Storm before the Calm: Pressure at the Park Theatre

Saturday 7th April 2018, matinée

The English are famous for the pleasure they take in talking about the weather, a pastime which is often seen as trivial and a form of small talk.  In David Haig’s play, we learn about a historical moment in time when weather was literally a matter of life and death.  He has said that as soon as he heard about the story, he wanted to write about it, and so Pressure was born.

This is the true story of James Stagg, the Scottish meteorologist hired by Eisenhower to forecast the weather for D-Day.  Stagg was hand-picked to work with American celebrity weatherman Irving P. Krick.  He was hired to provide certainty, but Stagg soon realises that the Texan in charge of the D-Day landings has an awful lot to learn about English weather, and the first step towards gaining his trust was to make him understand that the task was almost impossible.

David Haig is better known as an actor than writer, but with his third play his considerable experience and skill as a performer comes through in his assured use of the stage and cast to create the tension, pace, light and shade required to pull the audience in to this story. He is not afraid to give us long pauses in the action and fill the longueurs with lighter sections of dialogue; but when the tension mounts, he fills the stage with actors and keeps the pace at full tilt.  Perhaps one of our favourite moments comes when Stagg has finally persuaded Eisenhower to postpone the invasion in anticipation of a huge storm and comes back to his office alone, with perfect calm visible outside.  Pacing up and down with anticipation he looks obsessively out of the window. ‘Where are you?’ he declaims at the sky, and sure enough the storm that will cement his credibility arrives.  It’s a fantastic bit of stagecraft.

This is a compelling story, not least because its central figure has first to conquer his own doubts before he can convince those in the highest authority.  Even though we know the ‘ending’, this story has us on the edge of our seats.  Haig does not patronise the audience, and somehow makes the scientific information detailed enough to be convincing, while still being accessible, mainly through the use of a series of massive weather charts which appear every few hours, keeping us simultaneously painfully aware of how quickly and how slowly time is passing.  It’s not often that you can say you were on tenterhooks waiting to see which direction that front of low pressure weather has moved in.

It is hard to believe that David Haig originally wrote the play not intending to play the lead part, but we are very glad he changed his mind.  He perfectly captures the qualities that we can imagine made Eisenhower believe in the man.  There is a complete absence of ego and posturing, just irritation at the lack of organisation and equipment needed for the job. Haig radiates integrity, with a portrayal that is not afraid to show us an interior life with all its insecurities and suppressed emotions.

Haig is ably supported by a relatively large cast, but the stand out supporting characters are Eisenhower himself and Kay Summersby, his driver, assistant and, some have claimed, lover.  Laura Rogers delivers a spirited performance as a historical figure who embodies the dilemma of many women during the war – despite the horror she dreads the end of the war and what she sees as the end of her usefulness, having strayed too far from a traditional feminine role to ever go back.  Malcolm Sinclair makes a personable Eisenhower, humorous but with the kind of authority that means he doesn’t have to try too hard to assert himself.

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