I find myself frequently watching World War II documentaries. I need to know and understand the events and the scale of the destruction and tragedy. No programme can encapsulate all of this, even The World at War, narrated memorably and with great dignity by Laurence Olivier is wide ranging but serialised. When I was younger many adult conversations commenced with "during the war" for it was those years and events leaving no one unaffected that was defining and etched on their memories. They only saw the newsreels, heard the BBC news and read the newspapers reporting what they could. Security and secrecy being a necessity. If you sat quietly behind the furniture, you learnt first hand, usually of the civilian perspective, for the men rarely talked about what they had endured or seen.
Many would have benefitted from the modern-day approach to being counselled but we only saw the survivors living in the society not those who were 'broken'. On the other hand they had survived and there was a world to be rebuilt, new relationships and a life to be lived. I once asked my father what the greatest sight he ever saw was, he had travelled widely with the army before the war and he said it was when the war was over having been a prisoner for over five years, getting on a plane unexpectedly, sitting on the floor, and coming across the English channel and seeing the White Cliffs Of Dover, a sight he never expected to see again. He never left these Islands thereafter.
This play has been very much looked forward too and anticipation was pitched quite high as meeting friends, we took our seats. It is a truism that people in positions of responsibility are the few who make the decisions affecting so many, No one person has the intelligence, experience and skill to make a decision that is in itself perfection. War is the least predictable and is often described as the 'theatre of war' which is perverse because almost invariably a theatre is a place of a rehearsed and prepared recreation of a piece of work. War can be trained for but by it's nature, no prediction of the progress, timescale or outcome can be given any credibility. Pressure is a fascinating play focusing, as it does on the weather which we remain subject to then, now and always. I always have pre-play reservations, and sometimes these are realised, where the subjects are real people, only because even reported conversations (unless recorded and transcribed) can be inaccurate or misconstrued. This play,of this genre, avoids those pitfalls by focusing relentlessly on the subject. D-Day is days away and the pressure is 'building' hour by hour for those involved in making the decision to embark for France or to postpone. I was reminded, driving home of that earlier decision, 'Fair Stood The Wind For France'.
Pressure is a clever title, for it is the weather pressure that is the root of the dilemma, low and high for the successful landing of men, equipment and supplies relies on the vagaries of the climate and that 'cruel mistress' the sea, which can be as smooth and serene as a pond and as fearsome and lethal. The transition between the two states realised in a short space of time.
The setting is clever in it's simplicity and starkness. A bare room which is transformed by props, notably the vital telephones, magnificent wall charts being ours and the players focus. Never has a forecast been so vital, with months of incredible planning, plotting and with logistics & detailed liaison between all allied forces. All of this with the need for secrecy, security and all without modern communications. The largest known embarkation with the truly staggering number of 350,000 men, thousands of which are making their final journey.
Jenny Lloyd Lyons gives a wonderful and wide ranging portrayal of Lieutenant Kay Summersby, an aide to General Eisenhower. Clearly they are involved together and we see some none physical intimacy. Kay has post war hopes of more and of promises 'dangled' before her. A puritan view would say this relationship was inappropriate but they, as portrayed, are never less than professional. Ultimately her hopes are dismissed in a moment and we feel some sympathy for her. Summersby is the ideal aide, 'oiler of wheels', diplomat, encourager to other players in this countdown not to mention knowing just how people like their coffee and eggs, for these details might seem insignificant but it is those domestic details which allow normal life to continue.
Nick Griffith gives probably his best ever performance, very impressive throughout perhaps one he has finally arrived at and worked for as Dr James Stagg, a meteorologist engaged in the fight of his life, not in the actual battle but in his belief and knowledge and having to stand his ground with his American counterpart and they have to have an agreed conclusion. The American, Colonel Irving P Crick (Tim Kendrick) has a successful track record in forecasting but his approach is flawed simply because he does not have the first hand knowledge of the British Isles and the weather of Western Europe. Nick Griffith is truly excellent, we are with him from early on, dressed smartly in RAF uniform, handsome and well groomed, he looks more like a pilot than a weather man. Whilst the play never deviates from the focus, we see something of the main characters. Stagg has his own private worries , his wife is about to deliver their new baby, his second, child birth and infant mortality was marginally more precarious in those days. Nowadays, he would be asking for special leave, but his self discipline, self belief, which only very briefly falters knowledge and ability to convey his expertise wins through under a pressure we are allowed to see, but cannot know. Even today I am thinking what a fine performance he gives and with a fine Scottish accent sustained throughout
All the while the 'jigsaw' comes to fruition. A telephone engineer, Colin Mitchell, is now confined at the base as he 'knows too much' as reportedly do some carpenters. A spy could be anyone and anywhere.
As the play progresses, from the confines of this room, life continues, attempts are made to sleep and eat, but the clock is ticking, like the sands of time ever falling. One of the hardest things for the actors in this play is learning all the facts and figures and relating them to each other, in the correct sequence.
There is a brilliant scene where they watch a plane crash and the emotions are on their faces for this is but one amongst many and a portent, as they wait, for the horror to come.
As ever the Stables technical teams add fully and compliment the production, as the windows /blackout curtains are opened and closed the weather is wholly convincing from the breeze making the long curtains flutter and the light levels adding to the stage picture.
Congratulations and deservedly so to Carrie Beeson for a fine job with the props, from authentic telephones to whisky, hot coffee and even scrambled eggs!
David Morley is superb in a finely judged and executed performance as General Dwight D 'Ike' Eisenhower, the man on whose shoulders the decision will and is made. As you would expect he is a no nonsense officer, able to discern bluff, with a finely honed instinct. As this play is well written we also see some private or perhaps personal aspects of the man, real or imagined, David Morley has the ability to give these moments real credibility from talk of taking time out for some 'passes' (American football) as we might talk of a 'kick about'.
One scene for me was surprisingly moving. In an age when everyone seems to expect to be thanked for everything and that can dilute the words, before departing, the general shakes the hand of Dr Stagg and thanks him succinctly and with absolute conviction and all the more effective for that. The moment between the two men, the two actors was perfect and because of the skill of David Morley & Nick Griffith.
Surely, I cannot be alone amongst audience members, in that I learnt a great deal about the dilemmas faced by those making decisions, and the weather forecasting eg: what was available for interpretation. Mark Lee gives a good supporting performance as the support officer, Flight Lieutenant Andrew Carter. There is good support throughout from supporting actors, Mark Bostock,Andrew John White, withAlan Haynes and Liam Rowley in double roles convincingly.
I left the theatre in admiration and many compliments were being overheard in the interval (and after the final curtain) but that was setting the scene and act 2 was even better. Any reservations? Well early on there was some stilted exchanges.
Warmest congratulations to Carol Hunt for bringing us this production with great detail. This is all the more difficult in a static play in one room. One particularly impressive scene is where several people all engaged in telephone conversations at the same time where It is an evening I sure we shall remember and refer to it. To this day and evermore we need to know and understand and remember. Driving home along the sea front I thought of the sacrifices made and how lucky we are.
Do go and see this play, just four performances remaining Wednesday- Saturday.