Review: Pressure by David Haig at The Lace Market Theatre

After reviewing many large scale productions at large scale theatres, it’s such a treat to enter the cosy auditorium at The Lacemarket Theatre in Nottingham.

It’s an absolutely charming little establishment, hidden away in a backstreet of Nottingham. This theatre definitely gives a personal touch with all of the staff being incredibly friendly and helpful – there’s a real family feel with the existing and newer patrons such as myself. With just over 100 seats in the auditorium, the production is guaranteed to be intimate and, if the name of the play is anything to go by, intense.

“Pressure” written by David Haig, and directed by Jane Herring, charts the days leading up to the D-Day landings on June 6th 1944. Rather than focus on military preparations, Haig focuses on one man, meteorologist Group Captain James Stagg, who has been brought in to decide whether it’s possible for the D-Day landings to go ahead. Too much wind and rough seas would mean there’s a risk of capsizing the landing craft. Too much cloud cover, and the dropping positions would be at risk. It’s a lot of strain for one man to take.

Malcolm Todd plays James Stagg and what a commanding presence he is. From his entrance, it is clear that Stagg takes no messing and that he is a perfectionist. Bordering on rude to Lieutenant Kay Summersby (Alison Hope) he is there to do a job, and he knows it’s an important one at that. Stagg is being asked to make a decision that could put thousands of lives at stake, using an educated guess and his years of experience and the audience can feel his fear and his anxiety emanating off the stage. Todd moves seamlessly from strength to doubt, and gives a particularly nuanced performance after Stagg receives a telephone call from the hospital – the audience knows that he has been told something life changing, but that doesn’t get in the way of the job at hand. Todd shows raw emotion, but there is no way to interpret whether the news is good or bad. Not only does Stagg have pressure at work, but also in his home life… and yet he holds it together because he knows that hundreds of thousands of lives are at risk.

As his complete opposite, Colonel Irving P Krick (Chris Sims) is a charming and confident young American meteorologist, who initially adds a little lightness to the already-tense stage, but who finds himself locking horns with Stagg. While Stagg uses the most up-to-date information on the changing weather patterns alongside his knowledge of the British weather, Krick prefers to gamble with luck, basing his thoughts on historical evidence. The audience is set up to disbelieve Krick and place our trust in Stagg, not only because of his rather cavalier attitude but also because he talks of advising Hollywood motion pictures – not quite the same level of import as ensuring the safety of 350,000 allied troops. Sims plays this part with all the (over) confidence and brashness that this role needs. The tension on the stage is at its highest when Stagg and Krick are trying to convince the other that they are right – often through screaming in each other faces. They have such opposing views that Stagg’s suggestion of a compromise seems ludicrous. Both men firmly believe they are correct and both know what’s at stake. It seems an almost impossible decision to make. The supporting cast in Pressure make the whole play very authentic with their excellent portrayals.

A decision, however, must be made, and General Dwight D ‘Ike’ Eisenhower (John Parker) is the man to make the call. Eisenhower knows that D-Day could bring an end to the war and he desperately does not want to delay; not only that but a delay could mean that the plans are discovered by the Nazis. It’s a now or never situation. Parker is very well cast into this part as a man who will ultimately feel every one of those inevitable deaths; he has the unenviable task to balancing tactics and strategy with lives. Eisenhower talks a lot, and he smokes a lot, he moves a lot – like Stagg, he is feeling the pressure and Parker connects all of these traits together with ease. Despite his relationship with Lieutenant Kay Summersby, Eisenhower seems to be emotionally cut off, which is why his monologue in Act 2 is so moving, as we get to see his true fears. Parker gives us a likeable Eisenhower, one that we can respect…right up until the last scene where we find ourselves disappointed at his treatment of both Stagg and Summersby.

As Kay Summersby, Alison Hope plays the role of the woman in a man’s world with self-confidence, efficiency and gentle humour. Summersby has incredible empathy, but she is no walk-over and will fight for what she believes in. There is question mark over exactly what kind of relationship Summersby had with Eisenhower through the war years, and this is played out incredibly well. There is a clear fondness between the two as they snatch private minutes together and a tension between the two characters that doesn’t exactly feel sexual, but more of a forbidden-companiable admiration. Like Eisenhower, Summersby tries to switch off her emotions, but we see more of her personal feelings towards the end of the play, and my heart breaks for her as she is unceremoniously brushed to one side. I fact, I feel angry at how she had been used – that’s testament to the skills of both Hope and Parker.

Set only in the forecast room, the audience is never able to escape the room, much like Stagg, and the small auditorium really helps to emphasise a feeling a claustrophobia. The set (Linda Croston) is simple, as one would expect during WW2 with a variety of different vintage props being brought onto stage to make the room fit for purpose. The ever-changing forecast maps are a real focus point of the set, and I almost feel that I can read them by the end of the play. Lighting (Philip Hogarth) is well planned and shows the transitions through four days very well. The sound design (Gareth Morris) is a highlight for me as it gave a glimpse into the outside world, a world that we were not able to explore being only privy to the action in the forecast room. As the main characters gather at the window to watch the planes take off on June 6th (not June 5th as initially planned), the sound of the planes give me actual goosebumps. It is a poignant moment.

Most of the audience would be aware of the background of the D-Day landings, so the end is not a surprise. The landings were delayed by one day and thousands of lives were probably saved because of the tenacity of one man who had courage in his own convictions. I was fully engrossed in the play from start to end, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I learnt a lot. The play could be accused of being repetitive as the characters go round and round in circles in louder and more frantic tones, but for me this is a realistic portrayal of desperation to get it right.

As a lesser known play, especially in comparison to Haig’s other war drama “My Boy Jack”, people may not be flocking to buy tickets, but this is a real shame. Jane Herring has done a wonderful job of presenting a play about human nature, the cost of war, the impact of decision making, heartbreak and family at a time when war once again has hit Europe. It is a timely reminder to us all of the worth of human lives and how people will fight for what they believe in.

I would love to see a packed Lace Market Theatre for this production moving forwards (playing until Saturday 14 May), as that’s what the play, the actors and the crew deserve. This play is definitely one that will stay with you, and therefore not to be missed.

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