Mirvish’s latest, Pressure, is a surprisingly gripping play about weather — and war

David Haig’s Second World War drama about a weatherman’s D-Day forecast is surprisingly gripping if rarely moving

What: Pressure
Where: Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King St. W.
When: Tue., Jan. 24 to Sun., March 5
Highlight: Malcolm Sinclair’s commanding performance as the fiery General Dwight D. Eisenhower
Rating: NNN (out of 5)
Why you should go: Pressure, the Second World War historical drama that has blown west to the Royal Alexandra Theatre, is a surprisingly gripping, if rarely moving, play about the weather. Kevin Doyle, best known for his supporting role in Downton Abbey, stars as Dr. James Stagg, the Allied weatherman whose D-Day forecast changed the course of history.

As far as British dramas go, it doesn’t get much more British than Pressure, the new play that has blown west to Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre after touring the United Kingdom.

For one, it’s a historical drama. (If there’s one genre the British have a lock on, it’s that.) More specifically, it’s a Second World War historical drama about, of all things, the weather.

If that all sounds tedious, rest assured that it’s surprisingly not. Playwright David Haig’s Pressure is a refreshingly gripping — though rarely moving and somewhat formulaic — play about an Allied meteorologist’s D-Day forecast that altered the course of history.

Starring television actor Kevin Doyle, known for his supporting role as sad sack Joseph Molesley in Downton Abbey (yet another British historical drama set in the 20th century), Pressure offers a glimpse beyond the front lines at one of the most pivotal and lesser-known moments from the Second World War.

The play centres on Scottish meteorologist Dr. James Stagg (Doyle), who must provide a detailed weather forecast to Allied Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower (a thrilling Malcolm Sinclair) ahead of the Normandy landings.

Stagg, however, is paired with the arrogant American meteorologist Colonel Irving P. Krick (Philip Cairns, with a rather stilted performance that is hampered by a poor American accent), who contradicts almost each of Stagg’s predictions.

In this fast-paced production, co-directed by John Dove and Josh Roche, “pressure” comes to refer to several things: atmospheric pressure; the pressure to deliver the right forecast; the abnormally high blood pressure of Stagg’s wife, who is about to give birth to their second child as D-Day dawns.

Colin Richmond’s set, Tim Mitchell’s atmospheric lighting design and Andrzej Goulding’s utilitarian video projections deftly illustrate the passage of time and changes in the weather.

Haig’s script occasionally drifts too broad — Krick is portrayed as a stereotypical macho American — and the leading female role of Kay Summersby, Eisenhower’s personal secretary who may or may not be having a sexual relationship with him, lacks the depth that is afforded to the male characters.

The play, however, is never short on drama. Haig clearly — perhaps even repeatedly — lays bare the stakes at hand and the lives on the line with Stagg’s important forecast. Dove’s and Roche’s direction also underscores the tension with Philip Pinsky’s intense compositions and sound design, even if the pair’s frenetic staging late in the second act doesn’t always seem to trust Haig’s already dynamic script.

In all, it makes for a compelling drama but one with little heart. Its most moving moment only comes towards the end when Haig’s script moves away from the weather and the directors’ staging has a moment to breathe: Sinclair, as Eisenhower, delivers a shattering monologue about the cost of war and the lives it will take for the fighting to come to a close.

Overall, Pressure remains an enjoyable and gripping evening of entertainment, but never truly cooks up a storm.