NST City, Southampton – until 3 March 2018
Two girls on the Downs in 1940 giggle over a spot of rabbit-poaching on Lady Cooper’s land. A roar, Junkers overhead. Figures emerge from smoke and darkness as a chanting urgent chorus: “Over the river – Woolston way – Quick, this one’s for real, bolt the shutters, fill up the bath, fill up the sinks, water if there’s fire, change of clothes, candles, soap, photo album – Cos if..cos if…come the all-clear and your house has gone…”
We read and reconstruct a lot about the London Blitz, but this Southampton story deserves telling too: Howard Brenton, a clear eye and eloquent historical storyteller, has immersed himself in the facts about it and found an imaginative intuition.
The story of the Spitfires is itself extraordinary: in eight weeks of that year 489 planes were damaged, 785 lost; the Supermarine factory in Southampton was key, and they were constantly in production through the war years with constant improvements in design.
When the factory was bombed – as happens at the start of this play – machine tools were saved and other trade premises in the city and beyond were requisitioned under draconian wartime rules. They built components to be assembled at Eastleigh: the fight continued.
Brenton has taken real characters – Beaverbrook, the bombastic newspaper-owner and minister for aircraft production, and the heroic works engineer Len Gooch – but imagined a family business as the heart of his story: a laundry. Avoiding the cliché of a brave united mustn’t-grumble wartime Britain, he acknowledges not only the steadfastness but the wobble, the anger, the fear, the resentment of government.
If there is a faultless wartime hero it is Daniel York’s Gooch; a heroine, Shala Nyx as a young woman thrilled and inspired by her design job at the factory. David Birrell’s laundry-owner Fred meanwhile is pessimistic, indignant at the requisition, hostile and defensive, afraid. His daughter Jackie (Lorna Fitzgerald) is embittered on losing her soldier lover and has to grope her way towards understanding and finding a role. HIs mother, made splendidly terrifying by Anita Dobson who doubles as the aristocratic chatelaine, is as tough an egg in her way as Hilton McRae’s swaggering Beaverbrook.
So the play does not echo that tone of compulsory their-finest-hour heartwarming which marked the patriotic films of the period (which in some ways it does resemble). The differences resolve, and Southampton was heroic in many ways; but the story has variety and bite and human failings. So under Samuel Hodges’ direction and Leo Warner’s inspired design, it takes off. I had to catch an early preview, but nothing faltered. Brenton allows his characters sharp poetry too: when the factory is bombed you need no pictures beyond Jackie’s gasped “The look of it – dust in the air – snakes, no not snakes, fire hoses… everywhere sopping wet…grey – shapes of things that are all wrong…and you see, but don’t see, lying in bricks half a person, no legs..”
It’s the first production in this new space, and what they have done is to set it on a vast thrust stage, blank as concrete, so that the community chorus can come and go and scenes change instantly; projections turn the floor into the grassy Common where terrified householders would “trek out” and camp during bombing raids, or into Whitehall, or the grand house with its carpets and long graceful windows which becomes the design studio and sees its mistress banished to the attics. Above the stage, moving light-bars become roofs high or low . And – spectacularly at last – turn into the graceful, miraculous, moving forms of aeroplane wings.
Oh, and there’s a good surprise at the end, in a sack.