A HIGH PRESSURE TRIUMPH , AND A TRIBUTE
It happened seventy years ago so we know the outcome. D-Day was the biggest amphibious invasion in history – 156,000 men, 6939 vessels, 11590 planes. It was also the most astonishingly well-kept secret, and the moment when most lives – and the freedom of Europe – hung on nail-biting meteorological calculations: precise tidal, sea-state and visibility had to be found on one intensely planned day. On a coast where, as the Scottish meteorologist James Stagg despairingly points out, you get days when “At ten o’clock the beach is packed – and by twelve there’s howling wind and rain, and the Punch-and-Judy man’s packed up”.
We know that Operation Overlord succeeded, after being postponed one day on advice from Stagg, and that this saved thousands of lives and many tanks and guns from flat-bottomed craft which would have capsized on the 4th. We know that only a brief (and daringly predicted) window of calm Channel weather between gales allowed the fleet to sail to success. Yet despite that hindsight, for two and a half hours my heart hammered and tension chilled my neck. Author David Haig and director John Dove have created a play for Chichester and the Royal Lyceum which, should long outlive this commemorative summer.
For there is jeopardy, and powerful personalities within the utility bleakness of the Portsmouth HQ where Eisenhower and the service chiefs gather before great synoptic charts hauled up at six-hour intervals. Haig himself plays Stagg, and superbly: precise, a touch geeky, awed by responsibility (“I’m a scientist not a gambler”) , and nicely uncomfortable in the too-long trousers of a RAF group-captain’s uniform “I’ve never been near a plane”. Malcolm Sinclair is a powerful Eisenhower, and Laura Rogers as Kay Summersby his British driver and, in the stress of war, girlfriend. Ike’’s favoured , pally US forecaster Irving P Krick is Tim Beckmann, scornful of the Brit to the point of contempt: refusing to believe in Stagg’s jetstream theory he reads the isobars with insouciant confidence that the Azores High will keep D-Day calm. Their early conflict is fiery, the increasing honest despair of Stagg profoundly moving. We see Eisenhower’s awesome sense of responsibility alleviated by quiet moments sharing a rare orange with Summersby; we see Stagg in near-breakdown as his wife – with , ironically, high blood pressure – is near a dangerous birth. Subtly, we are reminded that not only was three-day forecasting rare and tricky in 1944, but that women often died with pre-eclampsia.
So there are personal dramas; but a finely judged script, with occasional evocative sound effects of bustle or storm outside – resists the temptation to movie soapiness and treats them with subtlety. We are never allowed to forget how many other tragedies hang in the balance, and how many will be lost even in victory. Add the tension of science: when Haig and his colleague scribble and repeat pressure readings at heartbeat speed, you bite your lip. I love synoptic charts and have drawn them on small boats, in anxiety: but even if isobars and tropospheric windspeeds are Greek to you, the pressure will hit you in the neck.
So will the unique tension of a war room. When Stagg collapses in trembling panic in the small hours – few slept in those last three days – Summersby maternally pulls him together, reminding us of servicewomen’s emotional contribution, which must have helped many. And Haig has the nerve not to leave us on an obvious triumph high: a deeply affecting, morning-after anticlimax is probably truer to the reality of those bare, tired rooms. I hope our national attention-span is longer than this brief D-Day commemoration: this play deserves a long afterlife.
box office 01243 781312 to 28 June . Sponsor: PALL Corporation