Pressure in the West End: Theatre review

After missing out on this play as it entered its first London run at our local Park Theatre, Finsbury (tickets were completely sold out), I was really pleased when my husband managed to secure tickets when it transferred to the Ambassadors Theatre in the West End.

 
 Pressure at the Ambassadors Theatre, West End

Pressure at the Ambassadors Theatre, West End

 

Based on what initially seems like a fairly innocuous pretence – the evolving science of long-term weather forecasts – and set in the days running up to the D-day landings, the need for precise weather predictions takes on an unprecedented urgency and importance to protect the lives of the almost 160,000 troops poised to take the beaches of Normandy.

Pressure celebrates the heroic actions of meteorologist RAF Group Captain Dr James Stagg who combines phenomenal forecasting aptitude with tenacity and boldness to stand up for what he believes, even in the force of a torrent of doubt from the most senior commanders of Operation Overlord, including Eisenhower.

Whilst initially we expected the main storyline to focus on the tension between Stagg and the US Professor Irving Krick, Stagg’s uncompromising attitude means that this is quickly frozen out. Instead the action turns to Stagg’s internal struggle as he battles with self-doubt, the inaccuracies and unknowns within his scientific field, a potential personal tragedy, and the knowledge that an incorrect decision may send thousands of men to an unnecessary death.

Having first encountered David Haig as Derek Grim, the ranting and pompous Detective Inspector in British sitcom The Thin Blue Line, I found a lot of similarities with the way he played Stagg. Not pompous by any means but an arrogance and bluntness of a man at the top of his profession, and a sense of urgency verging onto franticness as the hours tick down to D-day.

 
 David Haig as Dr James Stagg in Pressure

David Haig as Dr James Stagg in Pressure

 

Supporting characters are the direct but masterful Supreme Commander in Europe Dwight D. Eisenhower and his ‘Girl Friday’ (but officially chauffeur) Kay Summersby. Summersby’s ‘can do’ attitude and emotional attachment to both Eisenhower and Stagg meant that we assumed she must be a plot device to bridge the gap between the commander and weather forecaster. Actually no, with a bit of Wikipedia-ing afterwards, we found she was actually a key part of Eisenhower’s team with hints of a romantic relationship that were played out during Pressure.

Numerous history lessons and programmes on the war have probably ruined the eventual outcome of this play, but nevertheless, the superb acting from all contributed to an atmosphere of tension, excitement and dread within the whole theatre with the audience desperately willing Stagg to be correct and his place in history secure. Surprisingly, my husband didn’t actually know what would happen (and I’m trying not to ruin it for anyone else not in the know) and I think he enjoyed it all the more.

Some interesting facts I learned from the play were that the existence of the Jet Stream was not fully accepted in 1944 (‘Americans do not think three dimensionally’ – Stagg) and that long-term weather forecasting in the UK was really limited with about 24 hours to give any level of certainty (‘That is my best guess’ – Stagg).

A truly excellent play, in a relatively intimate setting in the Ambassadors Theatre set to run until 1 September 2018 – so get your tickets now!

As a postscript, I have now signed up to the mailing list at Park Theatre, Finsbury so I won’t miss any more gems when they are performed locally.