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Pressure

We had tickets for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and it was cancelled so into Pressure instead, which I had been planning on seeing, for obvious reasons, anyway.  I knew it was going to be good because everyone I know who had seen it recommended it.  What I was unprepared for in this “weather thriller” was its emotional depth.

It usually takes me 10 minutes or so at the beginning of a play to forget that I am watching a group of people standing onstage speaking someone else’s written lines.  Yet from the moment David Haig walks on, his shoulders hunched and his head dropping slightly, despite knowing his face so well, for me he just was James Stagg. Before hearing about this play I had no idea whom Stagg was, let alone what he did. A quiet, gentle man with integrity and stubbornness coursing through his veins, Group Captain James Stagg was the chief meteorologist who was in the extraordinary position of having to advise General Eisenhower (Malcolm Sinclair) on the weather conditions for the D-Day landings. The play follows the four leading days when England was experiencing fine weather, that Irving P. Krick, an American forecaster was saying would continue, and that Stagg was predicting would suddenly culminate in a terribleand disastroues storm on the planned day of the landings. Krick relies on using past examples of similar weather conditions to predict the future, but has no experience of the British weather that Stagg’s life has been rooted in. Stagg calls himself a scientist and so refuses to say the storm will definitely come, but that he believes the storm will arrive. He fears if Eisenhower ignores his warning, the toll of lives lost would be intolerable.

The play succeeds well enough as a gripping portrayal of this dilemma, with Eisenhower’s deliberation and final decision ratcheting up the tension despite the fact the audience knows the ending. The pressure doesn’t end there, though, when a fact I was not aware of is revealed adding another layer.

The acting, text, direction and design are harmonious and create an evening of crackling drama. Haig didn’t write the play for himself, but it is hard to imagine anyone else playing Stagg.  I found tears running down my cheeks three times much to my surprise. The emotional pull of the characters is so intense. There is one moment, one of those rare moments when an actor – in this case Haig-  almost ceases to be an actor and takes performance onto a higher level. It’s a moment of no words and even as I write this, remembering it, I feel my stomach tighten.

The play is about three people, and again unexpectedly the third character is not really Krick, but Eisenhower’s driver and mechanic, without whom at one point Eisenhower says he could not have done what he did. Laura Rogers plays Kay Summersby so well – at this point she is also Eisenhower’s assistant. Their true relationship is unknown; the play hints at a love that could never be.  Summersby started as an ambulance driver which reminded me of Sarah Water’s meticulously researched Blitz-set novel, The Night Watch in which one of the characters is an ambulance driver. I’m also reading Simon Mawer’s Tightrope, a follow up to his novel The Girl Who Fell From The Sky (Trapeze in the US), based on the experiences of the few women in WW2 who worked for the SOE and were dropped behind lines to work with the French Resistance. With the RAF Centenary also being celebrated, I was thinking of a BBC documentary about the women pilots who delivered all sorts of aircraft from the factories for the RAF wherever they were needed. What all these women had in common it seems to me was a sense of loss when the War was over;  that they were no longer needed and would have to return to the civilian life of a woman, which may or may not have involved marriage and children.  Haig’s writing and Rogers’ performance captured that, and in a quiet subverting of accepted gender roles, he portrays the men having their lives defined by their own children, and a woman who wants control of her own life, to be independent and choose her own path.

Pressure is simply a terrific night out at the theatre, one which holds the audience in the palm if its hand.

Go see, as they say.

Arrowood

Arrowood Book Cover Arrowood
Laura McHugh
Arrow
2017
Paperback

One of those books that if you get the wrong impression about what sort of narrative it has, from the blurb and internet reviews, you may end up not enjoying it. I thought it was going to be a psychological mystery in the vein of Barbara Vine, especially as it is dominated by a house. Whilst it may be a relative of Vine's, it's a distant one. I would call this almost a mood piece, but even that gives the wrong impression because McHugh still uses the tropes of  psychological thrillers to a very rewarding effect. To describe it makes it sound less original than it is - a young woman, Arden, who may or may not be a reliable narrator, returns to her family home, having lived a life haunted by the disappearance of her infant twin sisters when she herself was a young child.  Reliability or lack of it, always a good bet for a mystery, lies deeper in this book than most. Arden is writing a thesis on nostalgia and this book continually undermines notions of history and memory. Both the house and the Mississippi river dominate the book in unexpected ways.  There are hints of the supernatural too. McHugh also undermines cliches of the mystery, like a visit to a fortune teller, in immensely satisfying ways. Rarely have I found such satisfaction in the final chapters of a mystery as in this book; McHugh reveals layers which continue to mirror and enhance her themes, whilst staying firmly in an utterly believable narrative. It left me  moved and reflective, lingering on in me as my favourite books usually do.

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We now know that memories are not fixed or frozen, like Proust’s jars of preserves in a larder, but are transformed, disassembled, reassembled, and recategorized with every act of recollection.We now know that memories are not fixed or frozen, like Proust’s jars of preserves in a larder, but are transformed, disassembled, reassembled, and recategorized with every act of recollection.

Oliver Sacks

Notes From My Life

Should be writing a review of Translations but too hot.  So here are some more diary entries:

29 May

I’ve suddenly hit inertia at home. I’ve done nothing for two days (three if you include today). I seem to go through periods of time when I have so much to do I end up writing lists, to times like this when  I have nothing to do. I made a completely failed attempt to start writing a play. That lasted all of ten minutes or less (the attempt, not the play). And yet I can write till the cows come home in this book. This writing is just my unfiltered thinking, and also I have an hour or so to write – or alternatively watch the play, which I do occasionally. Maybe I need a special place to write creatively.

2 June

(Finally that £5.50 Swiss-made Caran d’Ache ballpoint pen, I bought especially for use with this notebook, that has blotched its way through these pages and which I have battled on with because it was £5.50 Swiss-made Caran d’Ache, has finally run out of ink. )

Listened to In Our Time on Henrik Ibsen this morning. I learned that Ibsen continually changed tack, maybe to challenge himself, maybe because  people’s minds and behaviour are all complex. They talked about how complex his women are. And I didn’t realise he’s the most performed playwright after Shakespeare.  He was happily maried, and in his daily habits very conservative. He lived many years out of Norway. A Doll’s House was seen as shocking but no banned – it became a serious talking point. Even today the thought of a mother leaving her children, let alone leaving them in the hands of a man (her husband) she didn’t think capable of looking after them, has a feeling of taboo about it. Unlike Hedda, Nora doesn’t kill herself.

4 June

I’m going to be spending the performance watching a woman in very bright patterned trousers. She’s spent a long time chatting up a male FOH who brought her something.  She’s probably in her seventies. She’s moved herself, coat and bag into the seats opposite me and has made herself at home. She’s been stretched across the Dress Circle ledge but has been gazing back around the auditorium. Then a mobile went off, some way behind her, so she spent some time looking around at them – glaring I should imagine. Now she seems to have settled into watching the  play, possibly the reason that most of the audience are here. She’s just taken her top off to reveal a spaghetti strap vest. I’m now wondering if she’s a man. Very thin, short dyed blonde hair. Came in wearing one of those oversize “golfing” hats and large 1970’s sunglasses. I now can’t decide if they are a man or a woman. Whichever, they now seem gripped by Michael’s and Andrew’s acting onstage. Now they are fumbling in a bag. Food? The scream sound effect made them jump to attention. They are starting to fidget and  look around again:  I’m wrong about the top. It has thin but not spaghetti straps and seems to have a low cut at the side. Middle seems to be ruched horizontally. Large dark watch on right wrist. Definitely a woman as I can now see the front has a very low cut. Polka dot pattern. She’s swaying to the interval’s Smoke Gets In Your Eyes. I like her.

19 June

Heard The Film Programme.  There was an interview with  Michael Smith, the first autistic director to make a feature film. He said something like, ” I don’t just want to think outside the box, but smash the box and remake it in my image.”

Again

I’m jobless from 16th July 2018.

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What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?

Jean Jacques Rousseau

Hereditary

If you haven’t seen the film then don’t read further unless you know you will never see the film….

Read more

Sky Marbles

I love and am proud to work for the Foundling Museum which I think is one of the most important museums in London.  It is a place of heartbreak, sadness and hope.  It is a beacon of how important the arts are for changing lives.

Even though I am used to being there amongst its paintings and objects telling their silent stories, occasionally I still get overwhelmed. This work done with the children of Thomas Coram Nursery, inspired by Tom Railton (the Museum’s 2014 Artist- In -Residence) brought tears to my eyes.  As you look at their Sky Marbles you hear their voices talking about why they have made toys for the foundling children, and what types and colours of weathers they have in the marble they have made.

Sky Marbles – The Foundling Museum

Tom Railton – Cluds

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Three this week – I like them so much

Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them make me laugh.

W H Auden

Be confident, not certain.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to understanding ourselves.

Carl Jung

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If all men knew what others say of them, there would not be four friends in the world.

Blaise Pascal