Review – Pressure, Ambassadors Theatre, 2nd August 2018

PressureEvery month or so I meet up with my pal the Squire of Sidcup and we do lunch and browse bookshops (as you do.) To shake up the routine this time we went to see a matinee of David Haig’s play Pressure at the Ambassadors Theatre; the Squire observed that he was the youngest person there by several decades. It was my first visit to this charming, dinky little theatre in fourteen years, and it’s great to see it surviving so well. Now see here, Cameron Mackintosh, it’s bad enough you wanting to rename it the Sondheim when its current, age-old name is classy and distinctive as it is; but proposing to knock it down and rebuild it would show an atrocious disrespect for its heritage. In its 105 year history, this Grade II listed building has seen Vivien Leigh take her first West End steps as well as 22 years of The Mousetrap, 11 years of Stomp and countless other great productions – including one of my first dates with (as then) Miss Duncansby as I showed her a good time by taking her to see Dinsdale Landen and Liza Goddard in Wife Begins At Forty, 33 years ago. In the words of Harry Enfield, Oi, Cameron, No!

Eisenhower leads a meetingI digress, as I so often do. Pressure is based on the true story of how Group Captain James Stagg, Meteorologist with the Royal Air Force, persuaded General Dwight D Eisenhower to postpone the date of Operation Overlord – or D-Day as we usually think of it – because of the adverse weather he had predicted for the original date of 5th June 1944. This flew in the face of the advice of Colonel Irving Krick, the American meteorologist in whom Eisenhower usually trusted, who insisted that the weather conditions on 5th June would be perfect. As you can imagine, to say there was a lot riding on this operation would be something of an understatement; not only the safety of the thousands of men involved, but also the long-term benefits gained from a successful invasion of Europe. So it was vital to get the timing right. No wonder the play reveals that Stagg, Eisenhower and Krick had a rather tetchy working relationship.

Andrew and StaggThis may sound like a rather unlikely topic for a play; and indeed you might wonder whether or not it can hold your attention for a full two-and-a-half hours, including interval. The answer is that yes, it can, just… The timespan of the play covers the stressful weekend from Friday 2nd to Tuesday 6th June, broken down into ten scenes – three in Act One and seven in Act Two. The first couple of days are spent arguing the rights and wrongs of the weather map and coming to the tense conclusion that the 6th would be better than the 5th; once the decision has been made, it only remains to see if it was indeed the correct decision, or if Stagg was wrong. As a result, the more significant “action” of the play – such as it is – all comes in the first couple of days; the remaining three or four scenes are all “sit and wait”.

Beneath the surfaceTo fill the waiting time, and to keep our interest up, David Haig turns our attention to the personal relationships between Eisenhower, Stagg and Kay Summersby, who was Eisenhower’s chauffeur and P.A. – and maybe a little more. There’s also a side story concerning Stagg’s wife going into labour, expecting their second child. Stagg is the embodiment of stiff-upper-lip, but nevertheless you can still see the additional nervousness caused by the worry about his wife and child. For me personally, I found the side conversations that revealed the personal issues beneath the surface were more interesting than discussions about isobars.

Big chartsHowever, it did make you think how labour-intensive, and downright slow, the whole weather-forecasting phenomenon was in those days. Today you just click an app and you can see weather fronts skedaddling over whichever piece of land you choose, with the ability to customise the symbols and the degrees whichever way you want. In 1944 people had to create a physical wall chart, with all the barometric lines carefully hand-drawn over a basic map, assembled in response to notifications from individual weather stations that had been telephoned in. It’s a fascinating example of technological progress that we take completely for granted.

More meetingsA relatively large cast for a relatively small stage gives a convincing impression of a busy, military office, with messages constantly being refreshed by lower-ranked personnel, and regular meetings with the Armed Forces hobnobs – not only Eisenhower, but also Carl Andrew Spaatz (Commander of Strategic Air Forces in Europe), Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, who, a few months later would become the highest ranking officer to be killed in the war, when his aircraft crashed in the French Alps on the way to Ceylon to take up the post of Air Commander-in-Chief South East Asia Command. Such assembled seniority emphasises even more the importance of the work at hand.

Krick and StaggDavid Haig takes the role of Stagg in his own play, and its an excellent portrayal of a focussed, intelligent, selfless individual compelled to hold his own in the face of enormous pressure (see what I did there) to cave in. He adopts a slightly surly Scottish accent – Stagg was born in Dalkeith – and his no-nonsense and no-sentiment approach to his life and work is very believable. His wiry nervousness is an excellent contrast to Malcolm Sinclair’s naturally relaxed but extremely powerful performance as Eisenhower, the kind of man who simply exudes authority and rarely has to raise his voice to get what he wants – but when he does, you really stand to attention. Making up the office triumvirate, Laura Rogers is excellent as Kay Summersby, on one hand insisting on conversational niceties like please and thank you, on the other, prepared to drive hours out of her way just to allay Stagg’s fears about his wife. The final exchange between her and Eisenhower was probably the best individual thirty seconds in the entire play.

KayThere’s also great support from the rest of the cast, especially the smarmy personality of Krick conveyed very effectively by Philip Cairns and the willing helpfulness of gopher Flight-Lieutenant Andrew Carter played by Bert Seymour. Pressure has already enjoyed a revival UK tour – it originally saw light of day back in 2014 – and its run at the Ambassadors is scheduled through to the 1st September. An unusual, well-structured and detailed play that considers a vital, but frequently overlooked weekend during the war. I’d be lying if I said I was riveted by it, but it certainly makes you think!

Review – Rules For Living, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th September 2017

Rules for LivingThe curtain rises and straight away you recognise that comfortable setting; Christmas Day, the living room and the kitchen, a half-decorated tree, and two young people perched expectantly on the sofa. Is it going to turn into Alan Ayckbourn’s Seasons Greetings by another name? With surprise artificiality, a device projects the words “Rules for Living” on the roof of the house, as if we’d already forgotten the name of the play. Then another surprise; before anyone says anything, the set divides; the living room heads off stage left, the kitchen swerves stage right, leaving a big empty void in the centre of the stage. It already feels like technology is taking over this everyday suburban Christmas scenario.

RFL1Sam Holcroft’s Rules for Living first appeared at the National Theatre’s Dorfman a couple of years ago, where it got something of a mixed reception: ambitious and funny, but peculiarly stressful seemed to be the gist, and I entirely understand where that’s coming from. In a nutshell, Matriarch Edith is trying to create the perfect Christmas Day lunch (always a disastrous idea) to welcome back her husband Francis from hospital, who’s been suffering with some undisclosed ailment. Sons Matthew and Adam will be in attendance; Matthew with Carrie, the girlfriend he’s been going out with one year, Adam with his wife Nicole and their teenage daughter Emma, who suffers with depression. As you might expect, the relationships between the sons, their other halves and their mother get progressively strained as the day wears on. Francis comes home, more severely afflicted than Edith had let on, and the day degenerates even further.

RFL2But there’s a twist: and it goes back to that artificiality/technology influence felt in the opening moments. Each of the characters (apart from Francis and Emma) has an individual behavioural trait that they use to cope with stressful situations. Matthew, for example, has to sit down in order to tell a lie. We know this, because it’s projected on the walls and roof. So when Carrie asks Matthew if his mother likes her, and he sits down to say yes, we know he’s lying; you get the picture. Nicole must take a drink in order to contradict. As you can imagine, during a typical lively Christmas Day, quite a lot of contradicting takes place so Nicole gets somewhat boozed up to satisfy this particular behavioural need. And so it goes on. There’s an enormous amount of genuine hilarity to be enjoyed recognising how each character meets their psychological responses.

RFL3Sam Holcroft was partly inspired to write the play as a response to her own experiences of CBT – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Emma is undergoing CBT, and it makes her question her own response to the various challenges she faces. Nicole would like Adam to accompany her on some therapy sessions but he’s not remotely convinced. Of course, all the behavioural idiosyncracies that the characters display are ripe raw ingredients for a CBT session. The stress of learning a new card game is another new challenge for Christmas Day; Bedlam – that’s the game – where the rules include your requiring to identify others’ behavioural responses, which the characters attempt to do, whilst still having to obey their own. The furore this causes strongly reminded me of Reg’s wretched board game in The Norman Conquests. No wonder Christmas is stressful.

RFL5It’s a really clever construct; but I always felt aware of a greater being influencing the activities of the characters. The unseen writer truly plays the role of the puppet-master, creating a series of individual havocs that her characters must endure, almost at her random will. I guess that’s the case for any writer creating a story – their characters have to comply with the events that the writer chucks in their path. But the artificiality of it all is really emphasised with this play and production. It’s a most unusual experience. A small part of me wondered if it was an easy cop-out; should we be able to see, through the nuances of the writing, how the characters need to follow certain behavioural paths without having their rules of living flashed up so obviously on a colour-co-ordinated screen? Doing it this way certainly means that the rules are in charge, not the people. The characters even stop what they’re doing every time the rules change, then resume their path to their fate, like flies to wanton boys.

RFL4The cast absolutely pull out all the stops to mine as much humour from the situation as possible, and there are some beautiful moments of physical comedy, classic farce, and an outrageous food fight to enjoy. Jane Booker’s Edith is a superb portrayal of a control freak who needs her own versions of a “little helper” when she’s thwarted. Carlyss Peer turns into more and more of a musical theatre travesty as she shows Carrie’s way of coping with anxieties and rejection. Ed Hughes’ Adam turns from nice guy into sarcastic sod in order to protect himself from his own self-loathing, Jolyon Coy’s Matthew is up and down like the proverbial whore’s drawers reflecting his permanent state of mendacity, and Laura Rogers’ Nicole’s tongue gets loosened by alcohol the more belligerent she gets. It’s almost as though Derren Brown has had a session with them before they went on stage so that they react to individual trigger points. There’s a nice irony in the fact that the physically suffering Francis, a delightful performance by Paul Shelley using only a few words but wicked facial expressions, is the only character who mentally knows precisely what he wants and has no compunction about getting it.

RFL6It’s extremely funny and very thought-provoking; despite its Ayckbournian setting it’s a highly original look at a familiar domestic disaster zone. Abbreviate Rules For Living, add an “o”, and you get RoFL, which rather sums it up. And spare a thought for the stage management team who have to clear that mess up after every performance. If you’re wearing nice clothes, I wouldn’t sit anywhere nearer the stage than the third row! This is a co-production between the Royal and Derngate, English Touring Theatre and the Rose Theatre, Kingston, and after its few weeks in Northampton, it tours to Cambridge, Windsor, Brighton, Ipswich and Kingston. You have to see this one!

Production photos by Mark Douet