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 – Rattigan’s Nijinsky, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 20th August 2011

Chichester Festival TheatreFor this year’s Chichester trip, we thought we’d immerse ourselves in the joys of Terence Rattigan’s centenary year. So on a whirlwind day out, we took in a matinee and an evening performance of two different plays, one a Rattigan perennial, the other a more experimental experience, both directed by Philip Franks, and with a number of the same actors in both.

Rattigan's Nijinsky A few years before he died, Rattigan was working on a TV screenplay about Nijinsky (not the racehorse) and his relationship with Diaghilev. The story goes that Rattigan pulled it from the BBC production team because of an argument about its content with Nijinsky’s widow Romola. Thus it was never made, performed or even published. “Rattigan’s Nijinsky”, by Nicholas Wright, takes Rattigan’s screenplay – or some of what remains of it – and creates a new play with Rattigan himself centre stage, in a suite at Claridge’s, having meetings with Romola and his BBC director, but principally seeing his screenplay unfold through his mind’s eye; observing the interactions between Nijinksy, Diaghilev, Romola, and his other characters. So there is the challenge for the director – making the reality of the Claridge’s suite and the imagination of the screenplay co-exist on the stage.

In the words of Linda Barker, I thought it worked really well. The occasional change of lighting, and occasional soft sound effect, help separate the two but for the most part, it’s as real on stage as it is real in Rattigan’s mind. Upstage becomes a dance studio or a ship’s deck; centre stage is Claridge’s sofa and champagne, with characters from the hotel drifting in alongside characters from the story. But what’s the purpose behind it all? My original thoughts were that a lot of it was about the vividness of the creative experience – Rattigan imagining the play going on around him – enjoying some of it, finding other parts disturbing, rather like an ordinary member of the audience. Mrs Chrisparkle felt it was more of a drug trip. Rattigan’s declining health is causing a lot of pain and he frequently reaches for a dodgy elixir acquired in Bermuda. The more he drinks this painkiller, the more bizarre some of the apparitions become. On reflection, I think she’s got it right. This raises lots of interesting questions about what is real and what is imagined, and gives the whole play an additional dimension of curiosity.

Joseph DrakeHaving the same actor play Nijinsky and Donald the room-service boy, who wants to provide Rattigan with something distinctly off-menu, (or is that Rattigan’s wishful thinking?) is very effective as characteristics of the one get merged into the other. Joseph Drake puts in two very good performances in what must be a physically demanding two and a half hours, with several costume as well as character changes. Similarly, Jonathan Hyde plays both Diaghilev and Cedric the BBC man. These two characters couldn’t be further apart. Jonathan HydeDiaghilev is eerily elegant, with something of the vampire in his appearance, feasting on easily-led young men, and not used to being thwarted; Cedric is a scruffy laid-back guy, appreciative of Rattigan’s artistry but more concerned with the practicalities of dealing with the BBC hierarchy. Jonathan Hyde captured the essence of both men really well, and despite his affected appearance made Diaghilev a totally believable character.

It’s not all deep and meaningful. The scene with Cedric, for example, is also hilarious, as is the scene between Rattigan and his mother, and much of the play has a very nice undercurrent of humour that keeps it moving along. Personally I thought the second act got slightly bogged down at one stage; Mrs Chrisparkle thought I was being too critical. Chenin Blanc Maybe that was the effect of the interval glass of Chenin Blanc that I can highly recommend. Something we both completely agreed about was a really awful moment early on in the play when Nijinsky as a boy is being taken through his paces by the Ballet Master. The boy is challenged to leap high, over a stick held out by the Ballet Master; which the boy then raises, implying he can leap higher than that. Nice, I thought; shows his confidence and arrogance, and also implies he’s a damn good leaper. But then his leap is represented by them lifting the boy up so that he is held in a tableau pose that I can only say makes him look like Michael Flatley’s love child in some nightmare form of “Lord of the Dance”. It’s ridiculous, unsubtle and a bit embarrassing. I’m sure a talented director like Mr Franks could have found a better way of communicating that to the audience. No criticism of young Jude Loseby playing the nine-year-old Nijinsky who I thought otherwise was rather good.

Malcolm SinclairAt the heart of the play is Malcolm Sinclair’s performance as Rattigan. He’s quite a favourite actor of ours, having been in the wonderful Racing Demon earlier this year – we still don’t understand why that didn’t transfer. Here again he commands the stage with a natural authority, engaging easily with the audience so they are completely on his side; his facial expressions and vocal delivery allowing us to see into the real Rattigan, the one we could never see when he was alive. It’s a great performance – but I also think Nicholas Wright has written a pretty good role too. I confess I was moved to buy the play text afterwards.

Susan TracyIt’s an excellent ensemble, and everyone carried it off well; perhaps an additional mention to Susan Tracy as (inter alia) the elder Romola, full of tight-lipped ire in a superbly well-written scene, and also as Rattigan’s mother, desperately trying to pry into her son’s private life but still never seeing the truth.

It’s an experimental production, and definitely worth the experiment. It gives you much to think about, and is definitely one of those plays you discuss for some time after. I still think a lot of the play is about the creative experience – something I always enjoy in a piece. I also find it satisfying when the characters don’t end up at the same place as where they started – and Rattigan’s character development keeps you on edge, let alone the very active and absorbing story about Diaghilev and Nijinsky. The audience at last Saturday’s matinee was disappointingly small – perhaps half full – but very enthusiastic in its response. There are only three performances left before it closes on 3rd September; if you can get it to see it, I would highly recommend it.

Review – Racing Demon, Crucible, Sheffield, 19th February 2011

David Hare SeasonI think it’s about eight years since we last visited Sheffield. The approach to the theatre complex now is so smart and elegant, full of welcoming restaurants, with beautifully lit municipal buildings with lovely fountains, and a real walk-through Winter Garden, that I barely recognised the place.

The Crucible too has had a refit since our last visit and it must be now one of the most welcoming and comfortable theatres in the country. Really impressed. All this, and ridiculously cheap tickets too. We had seats three rows from the front but slightly on the side (didn’t matter at all not being at the front because the show was so sensibly blocked, unlike….) and they were only £13 each.

Racing DemonSo we went to Sheffield to get a bit of the David Hare season action. He is a writer I have always admired, and even when his plays are a bit on the dark side, he is still thought-provoking and substantial. Racing Demon is his 1990 play about the ups and downs of a parish team of four vicars, with a wider questioning of the rights and wrongs of the Christian Church. At that time Mrs Chrisparkle and I didn’t see a lot of theatre so this play was brand new to us. And what a play it is. Believable characters, extremely funny, serious issues, heartbreaking moments. It really deserves its reputation as one of the best plays of recent years.

Malcolm SinclairIt’s largely a bare stage with occasional furniture brought on to suggest locations, but the dominating scenery is the Mackintosh-inspired back wall which lights up to create different shapes suggesting a church or a cross, and which conceals doors to the back. It’s very impressive. The play opens with the Rev Lionel Espy apparently praying but really, deep down, arguing with God. It’s a brilliant opening speech and completely sets the scene for the whole play. Malcolm Sinclair’s performance perfectly conveys a man desperately trying to do his best in a job he has been in too long. He wants to succour his flock, but he doesn’t believe the Church is supporting him in the right way – and in truth he is more interested in politicising his sermons and pastoral work with a practical anti-poverty stance, rather than by taking the sacrament seriously. Sometimes he resists the powers that work against him; sometimes he crumbles. It’s a fantastic performance, wholly credible.

Jamie Parker It’s his young curate, Tony Ferris, played by Jamie Parker, possessed of too much of the fire and zeal of the evangelist to be satisfied with Espy’s relaxed form of vicaring, who starts the rift that will ultimately be Espy’s downfall. We saw Jamie Parker in another Hare play last year, My Zinc Bed, and he gave a very convincing performance of the misery of alcoholism. Here his enthusiasm for Christ rides roughshod over all his relationships and his progress towards what you expect will soon become slight insanity is chillingly told. There is a particular scene where he discusses his past relationship with his ex-girl friend, and his emotional disconnection with the real world actually makes the audience gasp. Fantastically well done.

Matthew Cottle The whole cast are wonderful actually – it’s all completely convincing. I loved the contrast between the ways the four vicars are shown in their quiet moments with God. It’s the writing that does it, but Matthew Cottle’s simplistically happy Rev “Streaky” Bacon wonderfully offsets the darker side of religious doubts offered elsewhere in the play. Jonathan Coy Jonathan Coy as the Bishop of Southwark was genuinely scary in his anger – although his main argument is with the ordination of women bishops – it was 1990 when this play came out, and how many women bishops do we have today? Ian Gelder Excellent support from Ian Gelder (who I remember seeing as Private Steven Flowers in Privates on Parade way back in 1978) as the Rev Harry Henderson, outed as gay by a tabloid paper – today that would be redundant but in this play has a greater effect, which is the only sign of its slight “dating”; although even then it becomes a revealing barometer of the times. Paul RattrayMore excellent support from Paul Rattray as his friend, and Jane Wymark of Midsomer Murders fame as Espy’s long suffering wife. She prepares coffees on a tray for Espy and his guest and leaves with a concerned look and the serious question “Are you all right with the pouring?” Jane WymarkWith that line she superbly encapsulates so much of their relationship together.

This definitely deserves a transfer. Important subjects are tackled intelligently and acted beautifully. Daniel Evans’ direction allows the story to develop at a decent pace, with clarity and emotion. It’s a winner through and through.