Sunday, 18 February 2018

REVIEW: The Shadow Factory at the Nuffield Southampton Theatres

The Shadow Factory is an ambitious new play to open a new venue and it is a great credit to the artistic director of the Nuffield Sam Hodges to take a little known local story and turn it into an glorious new play about life in Southampton at a critical time in the Second World War. It is little wonder that Howard Brenton should be excited about the research to take on the writing of the story and then 59 Productions inspired to create an innovative and fresh staging design that brings the story to life.

The story starts in September 1940 with the bombing of the Supermarine factory in Woolston where the critical Spitfires were being designed , developed and built and the loss of capacity threatens the essential aerial defences that the RAF provided . Urgent calls between the factory manager Len Gooch and Lord Beaverbrook at the Ministry of Aircraft Production in Whitehall are made to assess the damages and establish how to get back into production. Gradually the plan to create a dispersed shadow factory is developed spread over thirty five venues around the city which need to be requisitioned but meets local residents resistance to giving up their property.

The staging is extraordinary using wonderful projections on the concrete slab stage to set the scene and packed with information to support the story . We are given dates, location descriptions , local maps, blueprints, woodlands and carpet projections to move swiftly and seamlessly from external locations, to the Dimmock laundry, and to Hursley House requisitioned as the new design office. The stage is then framed by the use of nano winches to move a series of LED lights to form roofs and create the illusion of a spitfire flying across the stage. It creates a real spectacle that enhances and supports the story telling.

Of course technology can only add to the performances and the real success of this production is the integrated use of a community chorus with the small professional cast in wonderful choreographed movement. The cast is led by Anita Dobson doubling as the contrasting characters of the American Lady Cooper and Ma Dimmock, the mother of the Laundry owner. She has great stage presence and provides a feisty opposition to the Canadian Lord Beaverbrook as he seeks to requisition both her ladyship's home and the laundry. Beaverbrook is played with steely resolve by Hilton McCrae for whom the outcome must override any emotional attachments. Fred Dimmock is the imagined Laundry owner who leads resistance to have his property taken over and is racked with self doubt about the country's ability to defend itself. David Birrell brings real emotion to the role and is also doubled up with the contrasting role of Air Marshall Dowding who leads the Air defence. The tensions on long term family
friendships is tested when Gooch, played by Daniel York is charged with creating the shadow factory. The younger generation are represented by Jackie Dimmock, Lorna Fitzgerald and Polly, Shala Nyx a worker in the design office and they symbolise the changing role of women during the war as they emerge in more influential roles.

Throughout the production a community chorus of twenty four play factory workers, design office staff, laundry workers and refugees onto the local Common to escape the nightly bombings in carefully choreographed movement and fresh musical commentary by Max and Ben Ringham under the musical supervision of Candida Caldicot. They add hugely to the production, filling the stage with the people effected by the events beyond their control and providing a delightful evocation of the wartime population and the nation's mood.

The resulting show is a celebration of the Spitfire, "a violent ugly killer", the people who designed, built and delivered the planes to the front line and of the human spirit to adapt under the pressures of war. As Fred Dimmock says of his laundry's war time contribution "you put on a fresh pair of pants you know you are going to win" while his mother is clear " nothing happens in Southampton without the grannies knowing" and together they helped get the production of the planes back on track and deliver a wonderful, funny, emotional and informative opening to this new venue.

Review by Nick Wayne

Rating: ★★★★★
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