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The Shadow Factory

Muddy reviews the very first production at Southampton's brand new NST City theatre.

It is 1940 and Messerschmitt hell rains down on Hampshire’s most vital port.

They call it the Southampton Blitz and, despite the government’s Dig for Victory rhetoric, the citizens are angry and terrified; drunk on fear and moonshine.  Today bombs, tomorrow Nazi jackboots stomping the South Downs  — Churchill and co. need to up their game or all is lost, and they do. In the city’s shadow factory.

We all know about the Battle of Britain Spitfire aces who reignited hope and the chance of victory, but how, and where, did the government create planes capable of such deadly accuracy? The Nuffield Southampton City Theatre’s inaugural production tells this story.

Conceived by 59 Productions, the video designers behind London 2012’s Olympics Opening Ceremony, in tandem with NST director, Sam Hodges, The Shadow Factory is a cine-visual feast that echoes the Spitfire designers’ technical nous, all laser-lit graphics, in-the-rectangle concrete, a whiff of brutalist Berlin and a narrative that savages our cosy, pipe-smoke-and-slippers Second World War stereotypes.

This is war: grim, prosaic, real — torsos in the rubble, locals sleeping rough on the city’s common to escape the raids and war heroes knocked-down and killed by nothing more than a blacked-out car.

But all is not grey. Sharp lighting, Insta-perfect tableaux, musical pieces and wry Saints v. Pompey jokes lift the production and root it in Hampshire.

The visuals are sparse, modern and decidedly Teutonic. The theory of flight, for example, is brought to extraordinarily beautiful life by neon tubes — glowing, floating, synchronised; think Kraftwerk circa 1981.

The uber-modernity is cut with old-school music hall numbers; there’s one hell of a culture clash going on here. Creaking Britannia with her social and gender hierarchy hurtling headlong into the rather pressing — cripes, Hitler’s-at-our-heels — need to advance, fast, and employ the best man for the job.

Even if said man, is a woman.

So to the female characters. Anita Dobson, Eastender’s iconic Angie Watts, plays a vulnerable yet feisty Lady Cooper. At times her American accent wobbles into caricature, but the warmth of her performance never falters and my does she have the best lines: “Why do I always like men who are utter cads?”

On the flip-side, Dobson’s Ma is all feist, the original independent woman stoking that Blitz spirit amongst the good people of Southampton with her, erm, gin still.

Elsewhere, Shala Nyx’s Spitfire designer, Polly, journeys from gauche to gutsy, ultimately disdaining promises of champagne, career advancement and rides in the ministerial car from the all-powerful Lord Beaverbook.

Hilton McRae’s mercurial Beaverbrook leaves the audience with more questions than answers. Is he Lady Cooper’s charming cad, Canadian-neutral, reluctantly doing Winston’s dirty-work? Or a manipulative power-broker? Most timely, in terms of his dealings with Polly, do we judge him by today’s or yesterday’s standards? As in 2018 vs. early-to-mid 2017?

And there-in, the rub. Is the script too perfect? Too relevant? Too third-wave feminism, Corbynista Britannia, women in STEM rule the world. #MeToo. Such a feast of feminist tropes, but too much of a good thing could leave a viewer queasy.

Still, history is only ever read, listened-to, viewed, in light of the present. This is a profoundly important piece of theatre, both internationally relevant, posing questions that we still grapple with today, yet with local roots, deep as a New Forest oak.

How apt that this story was chosen as the inaugural production for this brand-new arts venue. Part of a cultural renaissance in Southampton, a city finally recovering from the damage inflicted by Hitler’s brutal bombing over two generations ago.

The Shadow Factory, NST City (Nuffield Southampton Theatres), 7 Feb – 3 Mar 2018. nstheatres.co.uk

Words: Muddy Hants editor, Mary Malyon

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