The ‘Pressure’ was on for the Touring Consortium Theatre Company as the Cheltenham Everyman filled to the brim with eager audience members. It’s Olivier nomination day and the theatre buzz is strong. It’s also D-Day 1944.
‘Pressure’ is the story of some of the unsung heroes of World War Two, the Meteorologist Unit. We follow David Haig’s character, Group Captain James Stagg, as he battles in the face of adversity, and some intimidating higher powers. His prediction of weather on D-Day suggested the invasion should not go ahead, but it’s not exactly a straightforward mission. It allowed me to think about the Second World War in a deeper way, about the people, decisions and tiny strategic points were involved.
I have always been fascinated by the RAF but the play gave the side of war that wasn’t in the limelight the credit it deserved. I loved getting lost in the thick of the science and statistics behind weather predictions. As reports flooded in for rain as well as for sun, I also managed to learn a thing or two. It didn’t over simplify or complicate the topic, but didn’t spell things out or assume knowledge either, a balancing act not many productions achieve.
The urgency is conveyed from the off, pressure is piled on at work and at home, whilst arguments, debates and chaos keep the audience engaged in the static set interior. Projections of times and dates establish context and give the play some pace. The set was simple and didn’t distract but enhanced the ongoings.
David Haig was fantastic as the stern Captain Stagg who’s frosty exterior soon melts away when we learn more about him and his family. He is fascinating as a protagonist, a deeply complex character that Haig does absolute justice. Stagg’s passion for his work is infectious, a trait that engages the audience no end, leading them through the story. He is a man with a lot on his plate, you cannot help but lean in closer to Stagg as he nearly crumbles under the weight of the world. This was one of Haig’s best moments, sobbing and shaking in his chair.
Kay Summersby is played by Laura Rogers. As the only woman in the play she is strong, valiant and pragmatic. She is the no-nonsense glue that keeps the stressed troops calm, collected and well fuelled. Her role within the story and within the cast is vital and gives balance to a male heavy stage. Rogers is fierce but vulnerable, as women of that time were. Her relationship with Eisenhower is precious and tinged with sorrow, yet remains one of my favourite elements of the production.
For me, General Eisenhower stole the show. All the main characters felt rounded and realistic, but in particular Eisenhower. Malcolm Sinclair gave a stunning performance as the complex American General, teasing us with his intense vulnerability before snapping back into the strict and really rather scary officer he is. His final monologue gave a last-minute glimpse into his soft side that is hinted at throughout via his relationship with Kay.
The last section of the play to me stood out. Stagg, Eisenhower, and Kay sat waiting for reports of the results of their actions, drinking whisky, eating jam doughnuts, whilst finally opening up to each other and, in turn, the audience. You felt as if you were in the room with them and could almost smell the alcohol and jam.
The performance in itself felt fresh and raw. It was witty, tense, and incredibly immersive. I found the tone to be slightly muddled at times and I could feel the audience not know whether to laugh or to keep quiet. I was in awe of the way they kept the audience gripped, especially with little visual aids. This really commends the writing by David Haig, which was clearly deeply researched. The attention to detail in the story and in character development was beautifully crafted. There were so many perfect lines such as, “Nothing is predictable about the British weather, which is why we love to talk about it” and Eisenhower’s quotable catchphrase “Christ on the mountain!”
People may have bought tickets for David Haig, but came away with so much more.
Captivating characters and an untold tale of love, loss and strategy.
Highly, highly recommended.