The Shadow Factory is undeniably a play about Southampton
Howard Brenton’s play is undeniably also a play about brilliant women and human relationships. Staged currently in Southampton’s newly opened Nuffield City Theatre, The Shadow Factory follows several Southampton families in 1940. Trouble strikes when the Super Marine spitfire factory Polly works at as the sole female designer is destroyed. There are defeatist attitudes and tragedies all around and the story shows Southampton’s people pulling together in a time of need.
The trauma and tragedy of wartime is paired against loving relationships. As mentioned, The Shadow Factory is very much a play about Southampton. It features an almost comedic take on the local rivalry with Portsmouth; Jackie’s family have a meltdown over her intention to marry a man from Portsmouth.
The female relationships in this play are wonderfully performed. Shala Nyx’s Polly and Lorna Fitzgerald’s Jackie being the standout performances. Their lifelong friendship is threatened as Polly’s heartbreak spirals downwards while Jackie’s life becomes exciting and full of wonder that she cannot share.
Polly’s friendship with Lady Cooper (Anita Dobson) also speaks volumes, as Lady Cooper’s heart breaks over the war looming over her home. This is followed by her elation that this time her house is being taken over for creation and lively young Spitfire designers. The ‘last time’, her manor was turned into a hospital and filled with death. Lady Cooper sees Polly as the future, and Polly at the time is a woman of the future. She’s the only female spitfire designer in the company and a reflection of women’s position from her time, all the way to ours as women often still feel isolated in STEM despite years of separation.
Be proud of your city!
The Dimmock family are another faucet of the play. Bold and stubborn Fred (David Birrell), who loves nothing more than his wife and his laundry, tries to singlehandedly stand in front of the tide of war as it takes over his town. Dimmock tries everything in his power to stop his and other businesses being turned into shadow factories for Spitfire parts. Far from the regular expected attitudes of wartime, Fred appears to feel like the war is already lost before it has even reached him.
His love and affection for his wife Lil (Catherine Cusack) perseveres through he film reflecting a soft romantic side also. This refreshing take on wartime thinking gives Fred’s character complexity beyond what he appears. He is far from the typical stiff upper lip, keep-calm-and-carry-on man of the day. Birrell’s portryal gives the character life and spark and makes him an audience favourite.
The play is beautifully staged, with barely any props or stage settings used. Instead, images of the grass, the carpet, blueprints and wartime maps are projected onto the blank slate of the stage. The lighting is even more vital as the bars of lights above the stage become roofs or dance in the wind to be the wings of a Spitfire when necessary. The Shadow Factory is a perfect christening for the new Nuffield theatre with. It’s a play that makes the audience proud to be from Southampton. Give it a watch and be proud of the city you’re living in.