NST City, Southampton – until 3 March 2018
A world premiere is always exciting, but combine this with a new theatre opening, it makes for a very special event. The Shadow Factory, along with the opening of the new NST City, is certainly one of those occasions.
The Shadow Factory focuses on the true and local story about the Woolston factory, that manufactured the Spitfire, which was bombed in World War Two. Southampton’s community came together to contribute significantly to the war effort by continuing to build constituent parts of the planes in make-shift ‘shadow’ factories across the city.
First things first, this theatre space is a very welcome addition to the heart of the city centre. Being a studio, it offers the opportunity for exciting, new and possibly more risky productions the ability to explore audience reactions.
Its intimate setting meant that I didn’t feel that there would be a bad view in the house. With no wings, the stage is laid bare and there is nowhere to hide, which then means that full concentration can be given to the production and acting.
The set, lighting and sound design for this production are all stunning and company 59 productions is to be applauded. Projected scenery on a concrete base with innovative lighted rods above, overhead we hear sounds of wartime Britain. Even production images really can’t do this creation justice. Technologically this theatre really is state of the art and this is fully demonstrated.
However, without this the play itself, whilst the ideology is nice, felt a little underwhelming. Don’t misunderstand me it is perfectly pleasant, but there were elements that really niggled me. Accents seemed to waver and at times fluctuate between counties. The pace in some scenes was laboured and traction lost. Using Southampton Community Chorus as ensemble as well as for the accompaniment was very effective. Although they did at times make leaving the stage a bit noisy which was distracting.
The versatility of some of the cast doubling their roles really worked and showed just how good they are. Particular mention must of course go to Anita Dobson as both Lady Cooper/Ma. From lady of the manor to mother-in-law the transition in social standing effortlessly showed how good an actress Dobson is. There were also powerful characterisations from David Birrell (Fred/Dowding) and Lorna Fitzgerald as Jackie Dimmock. I really liked the fact that this story is based on fact not fiction and Howard Brenton‘s wit also includes references to city rivalry. The warmth and illustration of community spirit makes it a charming watch.
Perhaps my other minor disappointment about this production derives from the lack of explanation of the impact of the requisition orders on the employees. Were they redeployed in the Shadow Factories, were their skills transferable? For me a relatively simple play left me with a thirst for finding out more about the plot, which is no bad thing. You can accuse me of looking at it too deeply but there were a few unanswered questions in certain aspects for me.
This piece showcases the stupendous technological capability of this new theatre. It gives us a taster of what can be shown here and this in itself excites. A fitting inaugural production from a theatre for the people of Southampton.