Set entirely in the office of the Allied Meteorological Unit in the days leading up the D-Day Landings, David Haig’s Pressure focuses on the responsibility of Dr James Stagg to provide an accurate forecast of conditions in the English Channel, a crucial factor affecting General Eisenhower’s decision as to when to give the order for Operation Overlord to commence.
Stagg (played by Haig himself) becomes a part of Eisenhower’s ‘family’, unable to leave the tightly-guarded facility in case details of the top secret plans reach enemy hands. Eisenhower (played with appropriate volatility by Malcolm Sinclair) is the domineering patriarch, with efficient aide Kay Summersby (Laura Rogers) the closest the unit has to a mother figure. Pressed into service for his genius-like ability to predict the weather, Stagg faces the crushing weight not only of the accuracy of his forecast, but also the fear that his offstage wife may suffer complications during the birth of their second child.
Haig’s script and John Dove’s direction focus primarily on representing the factual events of this short period, the deep breath held by the Allies as they prepare for the offensive which they hope will end the war. Thus the set is often dominated by huge meteorological maps, depicting the Atlantic storms which neither Stagg or his US counterpart Colonel Krick (Tim Beckmann) are able to accurately decipher with the degree of accuracy demanded by Eisenhower.
Weighty and important as this historic forecast undoubtedly was, if Pressure chose to focus on this aspect entirely, it would have been little more than a well-staged docudrama of a little-known episode of wartime history. Fortunately however, two other factors are at play which elevate the piece into something more lasting than the effects of the weather.
First is Haig’s performance. Treading the line between genius and obsession, his portrayal of the initially gruff and stoic Stagg is – as his inner struggles are gradually revealed – ultimately compassionate and emotionally resonant. Stagg is the classic underdog and unsung hero combined, and Haig’s sympathetic and layered performance ensures the audience are quickly behind him, willing his predicted storm to break and for him to ‘triumph’ over the less endearing Krick.
Second is the character of Summersby, equally well portrayed by Rogers. Becoming Stagg’s friend and confidante, she provides a shield from the bluster of her beloved Eisenhower’s command and a sympathetic outlet for Stagg’s increasing sense of desperation. She is a fascinating character in her own right, defined by her role and by events, to the extent where she is conflicted by her desire for the operation to succeed and a fear about what her life will mean once the war is over.
Scenes between Haig and Rogers are therefore the piece’s most powerful and, had Pressure focused more on isolation than isobars, it might have been unmissable. As it stands however, it is still a compelling and surprisingly gripping play, which provides a glimpse back to a time when nothing – not even the weather – could be taken for granted.
Pressure runs at the Royal Lyceum Theatre until 24 May. Tickets and further information are available on the Lyceum website