Chichester Festival Theatre at the Minerva
As veterans invade the French coast to mark the 70th anniversary of Operation Overlord, David Haig's Pressure travels south from Edinburgh to the Minerva,
This timely new play takes a behind the scenes look at the run-up to D-Day, with weather expert James Stagg its real-life central character.
It is a fascinating story, and given the known outcomes, remarkably tense.
Haig, who also plays Stagg, cleverly manipulates the disagreements between the Scottish expert and his US counterpart to give dramatic conflict. There's also the hint of an affair between Eisenhower and his Irish “dogsbody”, and a slightly strained sub-plot involving Stagg's wife, in a difficult labour, with high blood pressure giving a third dimension to the play's title.
Little is known, much is disputed about what went on in those crucial days in Southwick House.
Giving scope for invention and creative tweaking, which results in a very satisfying piece of historical theatre, directed with an eye to detail and a keen sense of humour by John Dove.
The setting is splendidly realistic, with the large room simply furnished with makeshift desks, and french windows [taped in case of bomb blast] for the sunshine, the storm and the sound of drill, a reminder of the thousands of troops awaiting the word of command. Glenn Miller's Stormy Weather an obvious but effective soundtrack.
Dates and times for the countdown are projected onto the back of the set. But no such hi-tech solution for those all-important weather charts – the changing patterns of pressure are meticulously drawn on vast sheets, hoisted up in turn from a box on the floor.
Haig is compelling as the dour forecaster, expert and enthusiast in this “science governed by intuition and experience”, demanding better facilities and more telephones, raging like Lear at the storm. His breakdown under the strain is movingly done; his modest triumph is understated, his disappointment tangible when it becomes clear that neither he nor Kay Summersby [Ike's right-hand girl, engagingly played by Laura Rogers] will see Paris or Berlin …
Malcolm Sinclair gives a superbly lifelike Eisenhower, all bonhomie and bluster, but capable of tenderness in ten minutes snatched with Kay, sharing a precious orange. Outstanding too is his speech about his eve of battle visit to the Airborne Division at Newbury, given as the three of them celebrate with doughnuts and Tallisker single malt.
Colonel Irving P Krick, meteorologist to MGM, is in stark contrast to Stagg, cocky, flashy, a “salesman”, seemingly up-to-date but relying on older methods. He's played with a supercilious smile and a nasty streak by Tim Beckman. The other characters are less clearly drawn, ciphers, stuffed shirts, with some doubling in the ten-strong cast. None more successfully than Michael Mackenzie, who gives us an old school Admiral Ramsay and a terrific talkative Brummie telephone engineer, who, like the chippie from Chad Valley, is detained in the compound till after the balloon goes up, knowing too much about the Allies' plans …
The invasion map he glimpsed is still in situ, apparently, on the ops room wall in that Georgian pile outside Portsmouth.