A packed Trinity Theatre waited expectantly as the first strains of music wafted through the air and the house lights faded – the atmosphere was already created, and as two young ladies in 1940s attire appeared to have – on the surface at least – a carefree picnic, you just knew that their lives were about to be changed forever.
And as the girls moved in different directions, we followed their friendships and experiences. Polly Stride, in the experienced and talented hands of Abbi Leverton, worked as the only woman in the male-dominated area of Spitfire design, and while a confident young woman, found herself emotionally trapped between the bureaucratic and domineering government forces intent on requisitioning local properties to maintain their – and her – work, and the local families whose lives were brutally affected.
Her friend Jackie Dimmock (Lexi Skeldon-Downer) meanwhile, found herself a soldier boyfriend – from Portsmouth, to the horror of her Southampton born and bred family. Set against the scenes of air raids and bombing, her family’s reaction to the idea of a ‘mixed marriage’ and declaration that even though he comes from outside the city he is still hated Pompey provides great comic relief.
The central and powerful story of the World War II bombing of the Supermarine factory just outside Southampton and consequent need to find premises to keep up the production and repair of these famous and vital planes was engrossing, entertaining and thought-provoking.
Anita Davies as Jackie’s mother Lil is suitably maternal, long-suffering and intent on keeping the peace in the family, who run the local laundry, and Amanda Robertson is a delight as the meddling, opinionated gran. Her son Fred, the head of the family (when she allows it!) is wonderfully portrayed by George Webster. As he takes on a conflict far greater than the prospect of a Pompey son-in-law, to defend his business, livelihood and home from the forces requisitioning it, he becomes a heroic figure, representing the mantra ‘An Englishman’s home is his castle’, and leading the local populace against the incomers. For this is true British liberty: the right to your own home and means of providing for your family.
Set against this is the wider interpretation of patriotism and Britishness: working for the good of your country. And this is what Lord Beaverbrook (in the safe and experienced person of Paul Stevens) firmly believes he is doing as he sweeps in and takes over. The factory has been bombed; planning and production must continue, or as Air Chief Marshal Downing (the talented David Stradling) notes, the war will be lost. So local property must be used.
It is this conflict between the national and local need and the different interpretations of patriotism that drives the play. Ironically, Lady Cooper, the aristocratic but kindly (finding Polly and Jackie poaching on her property, she allows them to keep the rabbit they have shot) owner of the local stately home, is initially more than happy to support the war effort. Having housed a hospital in the last war, relieved that her home is to be used not as a factory but offices, Lady Cooper – played with warmth and grace by Carole Crow – welcomes the company. Her companion Sylvia Meinster, skilfully portrayed by Carolyn Ferguson, is disapproving, but even she does not foresee the gradual takeover moving to a point where she is told to leave the house immediately as her name (despite being Dutch not German) makes her a security risk. From being a figure of gentle fun as she looks down her nose at these interlopers, we feel genuine sympathy for her and her employer.
Trapped between the differing factions is Andy Kay’s Len Gooch, local man but working for Beaverbrook and charged with the requisitioning, we feel his dilemma. There is a denouement – but you’ll have to see the show!
Adding greatly to the atmosphere as well as the storyline is the ensemble, adults and children: singing, portraying local people as well as members of Beaverbrook’s and wider military staff, and providing chorus-style commentary. Some of the most poignant moments came when the stage was full, such as the portrayal of a bombing raid. The music, written specially for the production by Rosie Sales, integrated into the action perfectly and underpinned the emotional effect.
The stage itself needs a mention – I have never seen Trinity Theatre set out in this way: director Gwen Stevens, who rightly describes the play as Brechtian, with its short scenes and multi-role play cast, has chosen the thrust stage format, so at times characters were effectively in the round, with use made of the actual stage too. This allowed swift changes between scenes. A minimalist approach supported this too, and I was impressed by the use of two simple blocks turning to suggest different sets.
Everyone involved in this amazing production, from the director to the actors, backstage crew and those who have helped along the way, are to be congratulated. I understand that two earlier attempts to stage the play were defeated by Covid – I am delighted that it is third time lucky for Trinity Theatre, for The Shadow Factory certainly deserves to be seen.
The show is proving very popular, rightly so. Book quickly to avoid disappointment. Tickets are only £9.
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