Pressure, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh – review

Most of us know what it feels like to be under pressure. The tightness across the shoulders, the insomnia, the irritability. The sense of dread caused by a looming deadline, financial difficulties or even an out-of-control email inbox.

Here, though, is a play to put the ordinary pressures of 21st-century life into perspective. A co-production by Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum and the Chichester Festival Theatre, Pressure tells the story of Dr James Stagg, the Scottish meteorologist whose job it was to provide the crucial weather forecasts that decided the timing of the 1944 Allied D-day landings on the coast of France.

Getting it wrong would have meant military disaster and the deaths of tens of thousands of troops. Yet weather forecasting was then in its infancy as a scientific discipline and US and European experts differed sharply on how to go about it.

In this telling, Stagg, drafted from the British Meteorological Office, also has other things to worry about. His wife is expecting their second child, a birth complicated by her high blood pressure. And when Stagg arrives at his office in the headquarters of supreme Allied commander Dwight Eisenhower – the sole scene in this highly efficient production – he finds it sorely lacking in telephones.

Early in a first act tautly crafted by playwright David Haig – who also stars – Stagg hangs a barometer on the wall of his makeshift forecasting centre. And from then until the interval, the pressure just keeps on rising.

As storms gather across the Atlantic, the dour Scot battles against the more optimistic US meteorologist Irving Krick to persuade Eisenhower to postpone the invasion. On a wall behind them, huge isometric forecasting maps show the more elemental, jet stream-fuelled struggle between atmospheric highs and lows.

Does the high pressure area forming off Spain promise calm waters for the landing craft and clear skies for the bombers? Or will the stormy lows to the west send waves and cloud to swamp and ground them? The uncertainty Stagg and his colleagues must contend with is involving even for someone with a rough understanding of how the D-day landings turned out.

The play’s pace slows after the key invasion decisions are made. But in place of tension it offers a surprisingly affecting investigation into the characters of Stagg, Eisenhower – confidently played by Malcolm Sinclair – and the US general’s attractive driver, secretary and companion Kay Summersby, portrayed with delicate insight by Laura Rogers. Eisenhower suffers from the lonely pressures of leadership in war, Summersby from her attachment to the supreme commander.

Pressure’s success rests in large part on Haig’s assured performance as Stagg, the son of a plumber on an aristocratic estate in the small town of Dalkeith outside Edinburgh. As the war moves on away from him, Stagg can at last start to relax. The pressure has been nearly intolerable. But you sense already that he is going to miss it.

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