Nuffield Southampton Theatres‘ new venue, NST City, finally opened last week with a bang; quite literally, in fact, with a launch night filled with performance and fireworks in Southampton’s Cultural Quarter.
The big reveal was combined with the premiere of the venue’s new show. Aptly, this opening production is set in Southampton; it seems so fitting to herald a new era of art and culture in the city with a homage to Southampton’s past communities who endured the war and rebuilt the space around us piece by piece. I think they would be rather proud.
It’s somewhat easy to forget the city’s troubled past. There are reminders dotted around, of course; the remains of the city walls, ruined churches, memorials…and not forgetting, the famous Spitfire. Our city streets are lined with scars from the Second World War and long before, too, but it’s easy to miss them in our day-to-day lives.
Howard Brenton’s The Shadow Factory is NST City’s first show; a tribute to the city of Southampton and to those who gave their lives and livelihoods to the creation of one of the world’s most iconic warplanes.
The Shadow Factory follows a series of Southampton locals and their relationships with the Supermarine Spitfire Factory in Woolston – or rather, its destruction and the aftermath.
The show spans across Southampton and teaches us about the mysterious Shadow Factories which give the play its title, revealing the stories of those who found themselves fighting their own personal wars in the midst of a larger, more ferocious one which saw their hometown flattened before them.
Let’s talk about the cast. And oh, what a cast! There was not one character who seemed out-of-place, and not one who didn’t shine. Each and every cast member seemed to have been plucked straight from the 1940s and planted on stage in front of us.
Lorna Fitzgerald’s Jackie Dimmock shines as a blonde, brazen force to be reckoned with. She embodies a galvanised generation, facing down setbacks and loss to make a difference, do their bit and inspire change in a somewhat jaded and demoralised community.
This was, unbelievably, Lorna’s stage debut (she is best known for her appearance in Eastenders), but you would never know. She is a natural and I hope this marks the start of an exciting theatrical career for her.
Of course, Lorna is not the only Eastenders alumna in this performance. Anita Dobson shines as Lady Cooper and Ma. She is quick-witted and sharp, and the strength of her characters are clear and not lost to comedic effect.
As Ma – an ever-overbearing mother-in-law and opinionated grandma, with a tendency to always be right – she has the audience laughing continually, representing nosey grannies everywhere and making her allegiance to Southampton well and truly known.
As Lady Cooper, she is full of surprises and is strong and patriotic, keen to do her bit and shaking off the high-and-mighty stereotype that Jackie has labelled her with.
Shala Nyx’s Polly, the only female working with Supermarine to design planes, is equally inspiring, and her transformation from a nervous, obedient employee to a sparky, self-sure woman in her own right, is a joy to see.
The whole cast was wonderful and I could go on. David Birrell as Frank Dimmock is a man dedicated to his family and community, despite feeling ever-more defeated, and Daniel York’s Len Gooch is the local man torn between doing his bit for King and country and losing the respect of his friends and colleagues. I adored Catherine Cusack as both Lil and Sylvia, but especially as the latter: her defiant but well-meaning housekeeper with a suspiciously Bavarian surname.
Not forgetting, of course, the fantastic community chorus; twenty-five local residents playing the part of Southampton’s families and workers, all inspired by real-life experiences.
Director Samuel Hodges wanted these amateur performers – a group from all walks of life including teachers, dockers, students and social workers – to embody the production’s message, truly putting the community at the heart of the story.
I didn’t expect the production to be so funny, either. The show had the audience laughing proper belly laughs every few moments with witty quips and local ‘isms’ that really helped to bring the story even closer to home.
Next, the stage. I was overcome with just how stunning the new NST City space is; a top-notch, London-standard space in the heart of our city. The stage, I found out after chatting to staff at the launch, was made with concrete poured especially for the occasion, and cleverly designed to adapt to each scene. It was incredibly innovative.
Created by 59 Productions, the team behind the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, the staging took us through the story using projections and lighting. The stage, in turn, becomes a map of the city, then a blueprint, and then a woody clearing. Pits open up to form campfires with real flames and steamy washing machines in the Dimmocks’ laundrette. Light rods above the stage morph into outlines of houses, a bombed factory, and even the wings of a spectacular flying Spitfire.
The Shadow Factory is worth seeing purely for the visual spectacle; simple, yet incredibly effective, and possibly my favourite thing about the whole performance.
It’s important to note the educational importance of this play too. I myself had never heard of the Shadow Factories. I went into the play with an open mind and little knowledge of Southampton’s war effort, aside from the fact that we built the Spitfire and that we were heavily bombed.
I had no idea that Lord Beaverbrook (brilliantly performed by Hilton McRae) requisitioned local businesses to up production of planes at a time of crisis. I never knew that locals fled to live on the Common to avoid the bombing (and thus risking their lives in a different way).
I left the theatre with a better understanding of what Southampton endured in the Second World War, and a desire to discover even more.
This play is something very special. As Howard Brenton himself describes it:
‘This play is a love song to Southampton, written to celebrate a time of extreme danger and extreme human achievement in the town’s history”
The Shadow Factory is funny, witty and warming. It is familiar, educational and enduring. It is so good to see a story that could easily have been lost in time, transformed into something inspiring, resilient and visually and audibly stunning. I spent my first ever evening at NST City enchanted, transfixed and swept up in a story that will stay with me for an incredibly long time.
I feel privileged to be living in a city that endured so much so that we could enjoy opportunities such as this.
This is regional theatre at its best; a must-see for locals and those further afield, and well worth a journey.
What a fantastic start to a new and exciting era in Southampton; I can’t wait for more.