The Theatreguide.London Review
Park Theatre Spring 2018
David Haig is one of those actors whose name on a cast list fills you with anticipatory joy. You just know he'll be the best thing in the show and that, despite being absolutely reliable, he'll still do things that surprise you.
He is equally adept at broad comedy – he has the greatest double-take and slow burn since Oliver Hardy – and serious drama, underplaying so subtly that a small pause or gesture can speak volumes.
In Pressure, which he wrote as well as starring in, he plays a little man that history has all but forgotten, and not only creates a real and fully rounded character but convinces us of his heroic stature.
We are in Portsmouth in June 1944, as the largest invading force ever assembled prepares for D-Day. And David Haig plays Dr James Stagg, the weatherman who has to tell Eisenhower whether it will be safe to go.
The problem, as is very clearly explained in the play, is that there are major storms crossing the north Atlantic and clear weather moving up from the south.
Which will get to the English Channel first? Eisenhower's own staff meteorologist says one thing and Stagg says the other, and it really really matters who is right.
I won't tell you how things turn out, so you'll have to see the play to learn whether D-Day happens. But so skilful is the writing and the ensemble playing under John Dove's direction that knowing the ending does not prevent real tension and suspense from building up, or playwright Haig's guesses at the personalities and interactions from ringing true.
Actor Haig introduces Stagg as the kind of boffin who can enrage by being so sure of himself and disdainful of the less expert. But he makes the man grow and deepen as he recognises the dedication and commitment (and expertise in their own fields) of those around him, and the absolute necessity of getting his part right.
Playwright Haig has done his research and (assuming this is true) makes the fact that Stagg's wife is in hospital that weekend for the potentially dangerous birth of his son a deepening and humanising force on his character.
(There are other presumably accurate little facts – Winston Churchill gave Ike's driver one of his trademark overalls to use when fixing the car, Air Field-Marshall Leigh-Mallory hated cigarette smoke – that add verisimilitude to the things Haig invents.)
After Haig's portrayal of Stagg, the most significant character in the play is Kay Summersby, Eisenhower's aide, driver and (if gossiping historians are to be believed) mistress.
Laura Rogers plays her as obviously in love with Ike, whatever their relationship, but more importantly as a woman of great strength, wisdom and sensitivity.
She knows exactly when a cup of tea, some deliberately distracting small talk or a touch of bullying is what men on the edge of breaking under pressure most need, and her quiet interventions contribute significantly to holding things together.
Malcolm Sinclair's Eisenhower towers over everyone else, both physically and as a personality, but playwright and actor make us see the weight of the burden leadership carries. And the portrait is saved from mere hagiography by showing us a man capable of casually discarding his most dedicated supporters when he has used them up.
A major function of historical drama is to give human faces to mere names in the textbooks. Pressure not only convinces you that everyone might actually have been like this, but holds your attention and emotions throughout a very real drama.
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