A gripping new play with a Michael Fish-y narrative: Pressure reviewed

14 April 2018

9:00 AM

14 April 2018

9:00 AM

David Haig’s play Pressure looks at the Scottish meteorologist, James Stagg, who advised Eisenhower about the weather in the week before D-Day. The play works by detaching us from our foreknowledge of events. We’re aware that the landings went off smoothly on 6 June in fine conditions. However, D-Day was originally scheduled for 5 June, and for the preceding month southern England had basked in a prolonged sunny spell. According to Eisenhower’s American meteorologist, this was set to continue. But Stagg believed a storm was about to engulf the channel. Eisenhower trusted Stagg and postponed D-Day. The storm arrived, albeit tardily, which vindicated Stagg who then foresaw a brief period of clear skies and low winds for the following day. Eisenhower trusted him again.

This Michael Fish-y narrative is grippingly told against the background of two harrowing personal stories. Stagg’s heavily pregnant wife has been hospitalised with high blood pressure (continuing the play’s titular theme), and he has to reconcile his concerns for her safety with his enormous professional responsibilities. Meanwhile, Eisenhower is conducting a clandestine affair with his beautiful British driver, Kay Summersby, whose passion for him is hurtling towards a crisis. In war, their affair is safe. Peace will tear them apart. Should Kay believe the ambitious American’s assurances that he plans to make her his new bride? This is a wonderfully entertaining play and the script will prove irresistible to low-budget film producers. Imagine it. You can make a second world war movie in a single location, a map-room. Pure gold.

Devil with the Blue Dress coincides with the 20th anniversary of the Lewinsky affair. I was half-expecting a ribald political satire, but Kevin Armento’s play treats the characters and their predicament with sympathy and intelligence. Monica arrives at the White House as a young intern and eloquently describes the glamour of Washington and the erotic power of the tall, genial, ever-smiling commander-in-chief. Their affair began accidentally, after a series of chance meetings, and it continued for many months. Both were hooked on their mutual physical attraction and on the sheer naughtiness of their misconduct. They seem as sweet and naive as a pair of schoolyard snoggers behind the bike shed.

The play explores the emotional ramifications for Hillary and the family, and it reveals fascinating details about the Clintons’ weird personal lives. Bill and Hill taught Chelsea the ruthlessness of the political process by playing ‘murder-board’ at home. Chelsea was required to deliver a political argument which her parents would ruthlessly dissect and attack while she mounted the best defence she could muster. The experience often reduced her to tears. It also toughened her up. Chelsea was mortified by Bill’s infamous denial, ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman,’ because the words sounded so guarded, pinched and loveless. And they were. Bill, who hedged from the start against the possibility of exposure, refused Lewinsky’s request for penetrative sex so that this technical get-out clause would remain available to him. But he still comes across as a figure of sympathy. It’s almost tragic to witness the world’s most powerful man sneaking around the White House snatching three-minute quickies with a bewitched groupie. Sexually the affair was utterly unsatisfactory. They were never, for example, fully naked together. Bill comes across as a struggling addict, a tortured penitent, who vowed to give up adultery when he reached the White House but couldn’t resist his baser nature. He’s like a paedophile who joins the priesthood hoping that the church will purge and discipline him.

The play’s central figure is Hillary, wounded, traduced and incensed by the man she wrongly believed had curbed his adulterous urges. She takes us on a brief tour of their relationship. From the start, he needed her more than she needed him. She twice rejected his proposals of marriage in the early 1970s. While he retreated to Little Rock to start his political career, she went to Washington to take the bar exams. She failed. He invited her to Arkansas where she sat for the bar and passed. So began a wonky political marriage.

Historically this play is fascinating. Psychologically it’s full of astute and stimulating details. There are two fine performances here. Daniella Isaacs is convincing as the attractive, bubbly and faintly earnest Monica. Flora Montgomery gives us a strong sense of Hillary’s anguish while also conveying her faults as a politician: she has the haughty rectitude of Mother Teresa and the public persona of an Abrams tank.

As a piece of theatre the rough-and-ready staging looks a little disorderly. And the action is marred by a saxophone player whose bursts of noise drown out the dialogue with the regularity of a broken car-alarm. This is a fine start for a production that can look forward to a long and fruitful life in America.

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