Nuffield Southampton Theatres opens NST City, its second, state-of-the-art venue in the heart of the city’s regenerated cultural quarter, with The Shadow Factory, a play centred on the city’s community during the Second World War.
The title of Howard Brenton’s play refers to what the British government makes of Southampton after commandeering its buildings for the design and manufacture of spitfire planes when the Germans bomb a key factory.
In a modern age of victory or defeat from the air, one of the war’s key frontlines is a community divided, uprooted and left irrevocably changed by a champagne-swigging Whitehall.
As in his 2014 play Doctor Scroggy’s War, which set the development of plastic surgery against the horrors of the First World War, Brenton again delves into the murky morality of warfare as a crucible for progress. Here, the imperative is destruction. But the result also creates new roles for women and unlocks the power of aviation.
Nuffield artistic director Sam Hodges’ production certainly unleashes the new theatre’s full technological resources on the play. Nano winches create a balletic display of undulating neon tubes above the stage. Providing the outlines of buildings or re-creating the effect of air currents on airplane wings, they’re definitely eye-catching and sometimes hugely evocative.
Max and Ben Ringham’s sound design also exploits the theatre’s audio capabilities, as planes fly past us in surround sound and the swelling soundtrack rumbles around the audience. 59 Productions’ slick video projections superimpose moving, zooming aerial maps onto the thrust stage’s vast slab of concrete, constantly re-framing daily lives as strategic targets.
But these impressive bells and whistles can’t disguise the play’s clunkiness. Brenton’s script is heavy-handed, delivering its ideas in sometimes awkwardly overwritten speeches. It can’t resist the impulse to tell rather than show. And while Hodges’ inclusion of a 25-strong local community choir is a nice touch, they get flatly written, info-dumping songs.
The writing is lifted and polished by the performances. Hilton McRae brings a dry rogue-ishness to politician Lord Beaverbrook. Anita Dobson teases out the humour in her stock roles as owner of a local stately home and a formidable grandmother. A more recent EastEnders alumnus, Lorna Fitzgerald, makes a strong stage debut as local girl Jackie Dimmock, inspired to be a pilot.
And the play’s spotlight on a city remoulded for the future is fascinating. It’s a reminder that civic spaces (like the one outside NST City’s doors) are shifting landscapes. As Nuffield’s original university site will largely act as a receiving venue, the multi-use, socially-responsive potential of its new producing house is exciting.