JOYCE MCMILLAN on PRESSURE at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 10.5.14. __________________________________________________
4 stars ****
TWENTY-FIRST century theatre spends a great deal of time trying to offer something distinctive, in a world dominated by naturalistic screen culture. Site-specific shows, monologues, shows that use old, upfront traditions of live entertainment from pantomime to ceilidh – Scottish theatre, in particular, is full of this kind of formal shape-shifting and game-changing.
To judge by the rapturous response to the Lyceum’s latest production, though, most of this effort is a waste of time; for when a conventional drama is as well-shaped, tightly-constructed, and skilfully presented as award-winning actor David Haig’s new wartime play Pressure, the audience seems not to mind at all that the experience is pretty much like sitting at home, watching a strong episode of Foyle’s War.
Co-produced with Chichester Festival Theatre, Pressure is based on the previously untold true story of Scottish meteorologist James Stagg, a plumber’s son from Dalkeith who, in the summer of 1944, found himself summoned to General Dwight Eisenhower’s UK headquarters to advise on the weather forecast for Monday 5 June, the day chosen for the crucial D-Day landings. The story itself is superb, a magnificent combination of reassuringly familiar history, and ferocious tension surrounding Stagg’s role in the decision. And the secret of the success of Haig’s play lies in its strict and beautifully-executed observance of the basic dramatic unities, as the whole action takes place over a period of 72 hours in one shabby room in Ike’s headquarters, and is tightly focussed on the single question of whether and when the invasion should proceed.
John Dove’s production is a model of understated elegance, with Colin Richmond’s set dominated by the huge Atlantic weather-maps Stagg reads so brilliantly, and the story told by an impressive cast of eleven, led by Haig himself as the sturdy, incorruptible Scottish scientist, Malcolm Sinclair as the brilliant but humble General who later became US President, and the lovely Laura Rogers in the poignant role of Ike’s driver and devoted wartime helpmeet, Kay Summersby.
The stereotypes flow thick and fast in this show; there’s little to surprise us, apart from the overwhelming historic significance of the story. For sheer technical skill in theatrical storytelling, though, you won’t see anything to surpass Pressure in Scottish theatre this year; and this play comes as a sharp reminder that if you want to challenge traditional theatrical forms with any success, you first have to learn how to build them, and build them well.
Pressure at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, until 24 May.