Last night, Thursday 15th February I was lucky enough to attend the Press/media premiere of Howard Brenton’s“The Shadow Factory.”.
Situated in Southampton’s exciting new arts Complex, N.T.S (Nuffield Theatre Southampton City venue) Studio 144. I was instantly in awe at what a grand looking building it was being shown in. After a complimentary drink in the lounge bar, situated on the 1st floor, we were ushered into the intimate theatre. The seating (roughly 400 seats) was on 3 levels: Ground, stalls, and balcony. I was sitting at the rear of the stalls, consisting of just 6 rows on fresh comfortable seating where you are looking down on what looks like a boxing ring style stage but without the ropes.
Seating is arranged around the central stage which gave it the intimate feel. Wondering where the stage backdrops and props were, as there was nothing on view, my curiosity was answered when the lights dimmed to total blackness and suddenly the stage was lit up with projections from above that shone down on the stage in the form of a map of Southampton. Along with the projectors and subtle lighting was a row of about 20 thin strip lights each suspended by its own hoist.
Now the clever thing about the strip lights is that throughout the drama they become part of the “missing” scenery to imitate a stately home, a factory, and a laundry; all essential to the storyline. The drama begins with 2 excited young women, picnicking in the grounds of Hurlsey House-Winchester owned by an eccentric American lady played brilliantly by lead Actress Anita Dobson. “The Shadow Factory” tells the history of Southampton’s vital involvement in World War II with the production of the Spitfire in Woolston. This Super Marine Spitfire factory was targeted by the Germans and the factory took a direct hit killing up to 50 of its workforce and stopping the production of the Spitfire plane.
As a result the local laundry and the Stately Hursley house are taken over by the British government so that the production could be carried on. Without much fuss the Stately home is handed over but the Laundry takes a little while longer for the Government to seize which is fought tooth and nail by the owner Fred and his wife Lil. Eventually with the threat of arrest they give up the property and production carries on. There is a lot of the history during the performance that surprised me. My mother often spoke of her experience during the war as she lived locally, so it was great to hear the missing gaps my mother either didn’t know about or forgot to tell me.
Without giving too much away I was left at the end of the musical thinking WOW! And so was everyone else in the theatre. The simplicity of the lighting and the unique way the stage is lit up with continuous Projections was mesmerising. This musical drama is excellent in both its hugely talented cast and how well Howard Brenton seeks to highlight the gulf-between a bloody-minded British belief in liberty and the dictatorial necessities of wartime. This musical drama should be played to every school in the UK as a reminder of what happens through hard times. All in all its an essential piece of heritage about our City’s involvement and how we helped to win the war.