British Shadow Factories were the outcome of the Shadow Scheme, a plan devised in 1935 and developed by the British Government in the build up to WWII to assist in the building of aircraft using already established business environs and in some cases their staff too.
All this was news to me as I became fully immersed in a history of my home town that I was totally unaware of. The names of Hursley and Woolston will now take on a whole new meaning, as was the realisation that the Common was used as a safe haven from the merciless amount of bombings the centre and dockside areas of the city endured.
And it is how the people of Southampton rose to that challenge that is the subject of this excellently conceived and executed play written by Edward Brenton, flawlessly directed by Samuel Hodges with additional musical direction by Candida Caldiot and Teddy Clements.
Augmented by a highly flexible and entertaining Community Ensemble, the seven professional actors weave a fictional tale amongst versions of actual people in the form of Woolston Chief Engineer Len Gooch (a marvellous fresh and energetic performance from Joe Tracini), the forceful Lord Beaverbrook (an utterly convincing portrayal by Michael Fenton Stevens) and Lady Cooper of Hursley House (a beautifully warm and empathetic Denise Black). Such was the strength of these performances, a search on the internet was instigated afterwards to find out what else had happened to them afterwards, making the play even more special.
Shala Nyx plays Polly with great conviction, more than holding her own with the over-bearing Lord Beaverbrook and the men around her in the Spitfire design. The scene where she shows the quality of her work was quite brilliant alongside a sparky performance from Bethan Cullinane as the daughter of the fictitious Dimmock Family, perfectly evoking juvenile spirit and charm, especially in her relationships with her parents Catherine Cusack and David Birrell, and Denise Black in a dual role as her pragmatically emblazoned “granny”.
Cusack and Birrell also had dual roles and were virtually unrecognisable as Hursley House-keeper Sylvia and modest Aviation Head Dowding from their roles as Mr and Mrs Dimmock, fighting the Government requisition warrants. This aspect was very sensitively explored, the vision of the Country unified in Vera Lynn choruses being put into sharp perspective as it revealed an equally unforgiving Government from the one they were fighting, albeit fighting for a future democracy rather than a present one. I understand a little more now why Churchill’s Government was so severely ousted in the following election.
Design was in the hugely capable hands of 59 Productions, those superbly inventive people behind War Horse. With no scenery tabs or curtains, images were laid before you via various incarnations of 36 small and extremely fast Nano Winches. These simple 1-axis devices as described in the programme are connected in groups to three pairs of custom LED lighting bars all controlled via a central computerised system. And beautiful they are too, making roofs, buildings etc, all combined with exquisite lighting effects and visual computer imagery perfectly suiting the seating area to look down upon. Helpful descriptions are given as to location and clever usage of carefully placed holes which double as Common Fires, laundry and other prop storage; marvellous to watch, sometimes items appearing out of nowhere with effortless ease.
With catchy but non-intrusive musical interludes, this really is a must-see for lovers of Southampton, history and theatre as all three of these things come to life before you in a way not thought possible, leaving you enlightened, taught and above all, thoroughly entertained.