Where else could the title reference but my adopted home, and that of Supermarine in days of yore, Southampton. The city has been overflowing with cultural delights this week just gone – even I have only been able to capture a taste of the events which I shall ‘review’ in my inimitable (because, frankly, who would want to imitate it?) style.
Thursday was press night for the first production in the brand new NST City theatre and I was invited. Not, as you can readily imagine, as a result of the press credentials granted by dint of writing this blog but as a friend of the NST. I’ve chucked a few quid their way over the years (and bought a lot of tickets and warmed a lot of seats with my buttocks) but have also become friends with several of the people who work there. As a result, it was quite a nerve-wracking evening as the brand new building and brand new play really had to shine to the full house of the great and good (and, in my case, the bad and the ugly).
The evening started with drinks – always critical for we members of the fourth estate – in the bar. For me this was an excellent start as I knew the jazz trio playing and bumped into friends from many aspects of my life in Southampton – which does leave a chap wondering if they should be permitted to compare notes? We then all filed – only slightly sloshed on fizz – to the auditorium for the play: in my case, just behind David Suchet. I am holding this fact responsible for the somewhat surreal, Poirot-based dreams I had later that night (nothing to do with any alcoholic beverages I may have subsequently consumed).
The play, the Shadow Factory by Howard Brenton, tells a story I hadn’t known of how, after the Supermarine factory in Woolston was bombed in early Autumn 1940, buildings right across the city were requisitioned to be used for Spitfire construction. This complex of buildings were known as the Shadow Factory: what a brilliant piece of naming, I can’t believe an urban fantasy novel hasn’t used it! This episode was critical to the Battle of Britain but is hardly known. Indeed, I happened to find myself in the Imperial War Museum yesterday and couldn’t find a single book about the Second World War which mentioned it – it was hard enough to find mention of Southampton, despite its importance as a port, production site for fighter aircraft and how heavily it was bombed.
The play was absolutely brilliant and totally rooted in Southampton. It is gloriously funny at times with many of the jokes hinging on local knowledge: I have never been to a theatrical production with such a feeling of the place in which it is being performed before. It also presents a far more nuanced picture of people’s response to the war and the impact on the home front of the need of the government and military to prosecute the war than is almost ever heard. I’d had no idea that people moved to camp on the Common, rather than face continued air-raids, or thought about the impact of the general populace when their homes and businesses were taken for the war effort. The play had a professional cost of seven (I think, sorry if I’ve missed someone) and a community chorus of twenty-five locals who play an important series of roles. They are the people of Southampton (on stage as well as IRL), staff in Whitehall and Fighter Command and in sung numbers give an outlet to the emotions of the populace without the need for clunky exposition. I’ve never seen this done before, but it was really effective. The chorus were also an important element of making the play personal for me as I knew two of the lads, who carried the 40s look rather well: perhaps it is due a comeback…
The new theatre also deployed some amazing technology with plans of the city and Whitehall, landscape, blueprints, rooms and carpet being projected onto the stage in lieu of set: it was really effective seeing a bomber’s eye view of the city with the shadow factory sites marked. This play also marked the first use in a UK theatre of nano-winches – NST are nothing if not ambitious – rows of which, in groups of three, held coloured lighting strips which sketched out buildings in light, but also represented bombers swooping and squadrons of Spitfires taking of in defense. At one point, they even demonstrated the basic aerodynamic principles of flight. It was beautiful and really well integrated into the play, but I could also see it would be amazing for kinetic artworks made of light.
Everything went like a charm and, so far as I could tell, a good time was had by all: certainly, the play has garnered good reviews in the national press. One of the highlights for me was seeing Mac, someone I know as we both drink in the Guide Dog, at the press night: he is roughly 95 and was a Spitfire pilot. This is a link to WW2 which we won’t have for much longer and it was good to see it recognised
Friday night then marked the official opening of Studio 144: the pair of two new buildings which house NST City (North) and the John Hansard Gallery and City Eye (South). These new cultural spaces have been a long time coming, the councillor currently responsible for culture noted that she was 12 when the project started. Southampton City Council may not have necessarily moved quickly (but I’m probably on dodgy ground given my tendency to allow projects to lie fallow for a couple of decades), but across multiple administrations and financial crises they did stick with their plans for a cultural quarter for which they deserve credit. The buildings seem really well designed and it was lovely to see both of them full of people on Friday – indeed, to see people queuing to get in! Whilst I’d seen the North building before (the night before, for a start) it was my first time seeing inside the new John Hansard Gallery. I particularly loved some de-saturated grey-scale prints of small details of the building while it was being constructed: as with a lot of art, they found something extraordinary in the mundane that one normally wouldn’t give a second glance.
The ceremony climaxed in a huge dance number performed by children (some in parent’s arms) and young people from across the city under the aegis of Zoielogic. This was seriously good and unexpectedly acrobatic, particularly as they’d only had a day or two to practice as a full ensemble on-site. There was a huge crowd in Guildhall Square to watch the dancing and see the new buildings lit-up initially with floodlights and later, as the dance reached its finale, by fireworks launched from the roof of NST City. There was the strongest sense of a community coming together that I have ever felt in Southampton (and possibly anywhere) and I found myself becoming quite emotional.
I followed all this culture with a music gig at the Talking Heads. I felt it was important on this day celebrating new cultural facilities and multi-million pound investments to spend time in the deeper, long-standing cultural roots of the city. Fewer speeches and no sign of the national press, but three stunning local bands playing acoustic sets – Reawaken, A Formal Horse and Our Propaganda – in one of the city’s vital grassroots venues. In the case of Our Propaganda, it was the first (but I trust not the last) time translating their electric rock vibe to the acoustic stage.
Saturday I spent in London of which more in another post, but rest assured that there was a Southampton connection. Today, I wandered into the city’s shopping centre – not to shop (though I did snag some reduced celery) – but for yet more culture. The centre was hosting events to mark the recent start of the Chinese New Year – the Year of the Earth Dog – and I’m ashamed to admit it was the first time I have ever been to such an event. It was a glorious mix of the UK and China, with hints of the village fete in the speeches and prizegiving but also dragon dancing and martial arts demonstrations. It may only have been a two-man dragon, but it was very impressive combining dance, puppetry, acrobatics and drumming in ways I’ve never seen before. I was also rather taken with the Chinese dragon itself with its demurely fluttering eyelashes and taste for cabbage.
The next couple of night’s will be gig free as I’m away for work in a cultural Atacama (not everywhere is as lucky as Southampton), but I suspect after the last four days of overload I could probably use the break!