BWW Review: THE SHADOW FACTORY, Nuffield Southampton Theatres
Nuffield Southampton Theatres celebrates the first birthday of its modern city-centre venue with the return of The Shadow Factory - the first show performed at NST City which proved to be a sell-out in 2018.
Written by Howard Brenton and directed by NST's own Samuel Hodges, The Shadow Factory tells the tale of Southampton's hidden past and the essential role it played in the Second World War, through an intimate look into the lives of several locals and families, and the obstacles they face in the toughest of times.
The plot explodes, literally, as Supermarine's Woolston Spitfire factory is heavily bombed in a Luftwaffe attack, leaving Britain's airforce struggling to keep up with the demand for planes. What follows is a touching story focusing mainly on the Dimmock family and their loved ones, and how their lives are affected and changed in the attack's aftermath.
The staging of this production is stunning and incredibly impressive, but one would expect nothing less from a design company behind the spectacle of the London 2012 Olympic Games and War Horse - 59 Productions.
The simple concrete block of a stage serves as a giant screen onto which scenery is projected; it transforms into laundrettes complete with hidden, steaming washing machines which later become cosy fires warming the cockles of locals hiding from the bombs on Southampton Common.
Lighting rods suspended above the stage drop low; they are the ceiling of Whitehall, the roof of Lady Cooper's stately home and, most impressively, the powerful wings of a Spitfire plane. These minimalistic visual effects - frequently emphasised by the army of cast moving deftly around the stage - are a true highlight of the production and are almost a good enough reason on their own to see the show.
This current run of The Shadow Factory brings with it some new faces, as well as those from the original cast, each adding their own style to the popular production. After such strong performances in the first run, there is a lot of pressure for this new cast to be equally as extraordinary.
Joe Tracini as Len Gooch, Michael Fenton Stevens as Lord Beaverbrook, and Denise Black as Lady Cooper/Ma are each a good fit for their roles. Denise's Ma is meddling and familiar, and Michael's Beaverbrook has excellent stage presence.
Joe Tracini is probably recognisable to some from his appearances on Hollyoaks. This is a complete contrast to his current character of Len; a man torn between duty and love for his closest friends. Although he slightly misses the mark in terms of the emotional element of the character, his dark wit, timing, and urgency ensure that he plays the role of the harassed engineer extremely well.
It is a delight to see David Birrell continue in his role as Fred Dimmock/Dowding. He is a man torn between decisions and his grief, anger, and love for his family adds extra realism and relatability to the production; he is the everyman.
Catherine Cusack also returns as Lil/Sylvia, as sharp as before, slipping between the role of tolerant and fatigued wife and efficient household staff with ease, complete with a marvellous clipped accent.
Bethan Cullinane takes on the name of Jackie Dimmock and delivers an impressively emotional and sparky performance, suiting the part perfectly and adding such depth to the saddest moments of the production. It is important not to forget the supporting cast too, formed from local community members, who add to the sentimentality and neighbourhood feel of the show.
Whether audiences without a connection to Southampton or Hampshire would be able to appreciate the nuances to the local area that pepper the production is questionable. However, this is a story that, though specific, nods to the universal challenges faced at times of war; to sacrifice and loss and the value of family. This, and the stunning visuals of the show, is enough to captivate any audience.
This production is both entertaining and educational, ensuring that a little piece of history is preserved in an emotional and endearing tale. It's surprisingly funny too, with some local jokes and dry wit to break up the poignant scenes.
The Shadow Factory is a charming celebration of community and courage, a beautifully written, enduring love letter to local history, and the small stories of war and sacrifice that are often lost amongst the greater narrative. Visually spectacular, it is an excellent example of the treasure that can be found within regional theatre productions.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan