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SCRUTINY | Mirvish’s Things I Know To Be True & Pressure

By Paula Citron on February 13, 2023

L-R: Kevin Doyle as Dr. James Stagg in Pressure by David Haig (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann); (L to R, clockwise) Alanna Bale, Daniel Maslany, Christine Horne, Michael Derworiz, Seana McKenna and Tom McCamus in Things I Know To Be Ture (2023 Toronto) (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)
L-R: Kevin Doyle as Dr. James Stagg in Pressure by David Haig (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann); (L to R, clockwise) Alanna Bale, Daniel Maslany, Christine Horne, Michael Derworiz, Seana McKenna and Tom McCamus in Things I Know To Be True (2023 Toronto) (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

David Mirvish & The Company Theatre/ Things I Know To Be True by Andrew Bovell, directed by Philip Riccio, CAA Theatre, Feb. 1 to Feb. 26. Tickets here.

Things I Know To Be True has brilliant acting and directing, fabulous theatrical values, but a plot on overkill.

It’s important to state, however, that I am a minority opinion. I am not as enamoured with the 2016 Australian play Things I Know To Be True as legions of others. The run has been extended, after all, which attests to its popularity. The key seems to be that Toronto audiences are relating to the trials and tribulations of the Price family in a major way. A real connection is happening, which is the dream of every playwright.

My problem with Things I Know To Be True is two-fold. First, the plot borders on melodrama, given all the bad things that descend upon the family members like a plague of locusts. Second, I could guess the ending, and I put this down to a weakness in the writing. That being said, Things I Know To Be True has some gripping moments and is certainly worth a visit.

Bovell has set his play in Adelaide, South Australia. The Price family could be deemed on the cusp of working class and middle class because father Bob (Tom McCamus) worked at a car assembly plant, while mother Fran (Seana McKenna) is a nurse. Needless to say, we discover that theirs is a troubled marriage.

Through a series of monologues and scenes, we meet the four children who each have their own set of problems, and because I don’t want to give away spoilers, I’ll say as little as possible.

Ben (Daniel Maslany), the oldest, is on drugs. Pip (Christine Horne) is having an affair. Mark/Mia (Michael Derworiz) is trans, while Rosie (Alanna Bale) is beyond naïve and directionless. All give sterling performances, while marking their own very individual performances.

Bovell’s strength as a writer is his ability to flesh out character, and that is where he is finding his audience. His sharpest creation is Fran, who seems to know the truth that lies behind her husband and children’s intentions before they can even vocalise these thoughts themselves. Her keen, incisive insights form a significant part of the play, and when you have a master actor like McKenna, the character delivery is incredibly satisfactory.

The same could be said about McCamus’ Bob. He’s not particularly a deep thinker, so he wears his heart on his sleeve. His reactions are immediate and understandable. He is seemingly easygoing and uncomplicated, but the richness of McCamus’ portrayal comes from a man attempting to cope with the disasters raining down upon him. We all know the Bobs of this world — the salt of the earth types who flounder when order is destroyed.

Shannon Lea Doyle’s set is a visual marvel. On one side we have the kitchen, which leads out to Bob’s beloved garden, and kudos to director Philip Riccio for moving his cast skilfully through the two integral pieces of the household. Nick Blais’ masterful lighting is very much on display, because the memory monologues have to be differentiated from the scenes of realism. Deanna H. Choi’s sound design is an interesting mix of contemporary pop music and a lot of Leonard Cohen (the latter, apparently, being mentioned throughout the script).

I don’t want to leave without giving a shout-out to the Mirvish organization for giving small, independent Toronto theatre companies a chance to mount productions that they could otherwise ill afford. In the case of Things I Know To Be True, it is The Company Theatre, but there have been several collaborations in the past with the likes of Studio 180, for example.

In conclusion, great character portrayals grace this play, and win over any weakness in the script.

Stuart Milligan as Commander Franklin, Laura Rogers as Kay Summersby, James Sheldon as Lieutenant Battersby, and Kevin Doyle as Dr. James Stagg in Pressure by David Haig (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)
Stuart Milligan as Commander Franklin, Laura Rogers as Kay Summersby, James Sheldon as Lieutenant Battersby, and Kevin Doyle as Dr. James Stagg in Pressure by David Haig (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

David Mirvish, Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh & Chichester Festival Theatre/Pressure by David Haig, directed by John Dove and Josh Roche, Royal Alexandra Theatre, Jan. 24 to Mar. 5. Tickets here.

David Haig’s Pressure (2014) is a grand old-fashioned play. It’s typical of that type of theatre outing that would have delighted you on a trip to New York or London several decades ago.

It seems dated now because Pressure is a throwback to the well-made problem play with substance. There are lots of interesting characters (played by 11 actors), and an absorbing story line. Yes, there are stereotypes, and some things are predictable, and we immediately know the good guys from the bad guys, and subtext is in short supply, but overall, Pressure makes you feel that you have had a genuine theatrical experience with a capital T.

The premise is fascinating. The timeline of Pressure is the 72-hours before D-Day, 1944. Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower is ready to send 350,000 men to invade the continent to begin the final phase of the war. The problem is, there are only two times in the year when the full moon corresponds with low tide in France. If they can’t go on June 5, the proposed date, the Allies miss the invasion opportunity, and the war will drag on.

Now who could imagine that a play about weather could be so gripping?

Eisenhower (Malcolm Sinclair) is torn between two conflicting advisors. On one hand, you have American Colonel Irving P. Krick (Philip Cairns) who predicts a sunny calm day (and Haig has written him as the Ugly American). On the other hand, there is Group Captain Dr. James Stagg (Kevin Doyle), the British meteorologist, who says the invasion must be postponed due to towering storms and swells. Now we all know that D-Day was June 6, so how that came to be the invasion date is the heart and soul of Pressure.

(As an interesting side note, if you follow British TV series, Doyle was Mr. Mosely on Downton Abbey, while Sinclair was Freddie Fisher in Pie in the Sky.)

Haig has also thrown in a couple of subplots. While the jury is still out about Eisenhower’s exact relationship with his British driver/secretary Kay Summersby (Laura Rogers), Haig has taken the viewpoint that it was a genuine love affair. As well, Stagg’s wife is having a baby and because she had difficulty with her first child, the birth of this second child is a genuine worry. Did we need the baby complication? Probably not.

Pressure radiates with British theatre competence. It presents a skilled company of actors who can deliver tension by the bucketful, and co-directors John Dove and Josh Roche have jacked up the pacing to ensure that this happens. Designer Colin Richmond has provided a suitably drab command room set, while Philip Pinsky has composed the perfect edgy background music. Andrzej Goulding’s projections take us through the timeline.

Did I have a good time at Pressure? You bet I did. I’m a history buff, so I loved learning about all the weather stuff that affected D-Day. In other words, Haig has written a play that isn’t going to jump out at you with great philosophical or psychological insights, but there is enough in the plot to keep you absolutely engaged.

Besides, it’s a true story, so what can be better than that?


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Paula Citron
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