March 2018: Reviews of Howard Brenton’s The Shadow Factory with Anita Dobson at the new Nuffield Southampton Theatres city centre space and J K Rowling’s Harry Potter And The Cursed Child at the Palace Theatre London. Plus my selection of the best theatre shows opening or going on sale in March.
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Howard Brenton is an inspired choice to launch the Nuffield Southampton’s new theatre. His latest play The Shadow Factory is not only about the city in the second world war, it fills the large space.
The imaginative set has been created by the group of artists called 59 Productions whose impressive pedigree includes video work on War Horse and An American In Paris. Virtually the only elements of the set are tubular lights above that bend and move to recreate brilliantly the sense of planes overhead and maps projected on the floor of the thrust stage to show not only scene locations but the targets of German bombs. Combined with amazing surround sound, the feeling of being under air attack made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
One of Luftwaffe’s targets is Woolston, Southampton, home of the main factory producing Spitfires. After this is blown up, production switches to multiple locations around the area- the shadow factory of the title.
And this is where it gets interesting. The British government, once at war, committed itself to full-on war without mercy or conscience. In The Shadow Factory, we see them requisitioning property, specifically a local laundry business and a country house, with no care for the owners.
Anita Dobson & David Birrell lead an excellent cast
The central characters are there to give a human face to the story but, I suspect, not meant to distract us from it by tugging at the heartstrings. Even so, the excellent cast do bring them to life. Special mention here for Anita Dobson and David Birrell playing two vivid characters each.
Dobson is both the laid back, generous aristocratic American Lady Cooper and the indefatigable, humorous grandmother Ma. Both of Birrell’s characters oppose the government in their different ways: Fred Dimmock, the rebellious laundry owner, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding who is too gentlemanly for modern warfare.
The cast are uniformly good. Catherine Cusack also doubles up: Lil Dimmock is on the edge of a breakdown and Sylvia Meinster whose propriety isn’t enough to overcome a foreign name. Lorna Fitzgerald (Jackie) and Shala Nyx (Polly) played two of the numerous strong women in this play who face up to the horrors of war and make their mark. It was a pleasure to see Hilton McCrae take the part of the ruthless charmer Beaverbrook. Daniel York is splendid as the conflicted Len Gooch, likeable local factory manager and reluctant tool of the government.
A chorus of local people appear regularly and, by the device of singing together, create a strong sense of community in the face of German bombardment and government dictatorship.
Sam Hodges’ production of The Shadow Factory hits the target.
February is a busy month for new shows in London with big names.
Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville star in Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece Long Day’s Journey Into Night at Wyndham’s from 27 January for 10 weeks only. First seen at Bristol old Vic. More than one reviewer noted the exhilaratingly fast pace of this production directed by Richard Eyre. The Tyrone family positively hurtle toward their destruction.
Rufus Norris directs Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff in Macbeth at National Theatre from 26 February to 12 May.
Carey Mulligan is in the one woman play Girls And Boys by Dennis Kelly at the Royal Court from 8 February to 17 March. It’s already sold out but try for Monday tickets.
Frozenat Theatre Royal Haymarket is Bryony Lavery’s thriller about a missing girl, not the Disney film. Suranne Jones and Jason Watkins star. It opens on 9 February for 12 weeks.
On the London fringe, The B*eats written by and starring the excellent Monica Dolan was well reviewed at Edinburgh Festival and can now be seen at Bush Theatre from 12 February. It’s a comedy drama (dramedy, anybody?) about the sexualisation of children.
Another Edinburgh hit opens at Soho Theatre: Dust, penned and performed by Milly Thomas, imagines a woman committing suicide and then be forced to watch the aftermath.
Outside London, the big event is the opening of the Nuffield Theatre Southampton’s new city centre space on 7 February launched with a new play The Shadow Factory by Howard Brenton.
The tour of This House by James Graham begins at West Yorkshire Playhousein Leeds from 23 February and then moves to Cambridge, Bath, Edinburgh, Nottingham, Birmingham, Salford, Plymouth, Norwich, Great Malvern, Guildford and Sheffield. Read my review of This House here.
I had a great year of theatre going in 2017. My best evening out was at the Soho Theatre where I saw Mr Swallow in Houdini. It was an hour of continuous laughter at its cleverness, clowning and sheer madness.
As for actual comedy drama, I really enjoyed The Lie by Florian Zeller at The Menier and James Graham’s Labour Of Love with Martin Freeman and Tamsin Greig but outstanding for me was the revival of Joe Orton’s Loot at Park Theatre and The Watermill Newbury (where I saw it), now uncensored and funnier than ever.
The best musical I saw, Follies and An American In Paris notwithstanding, was On The Town at the Regents Park Open Air Theatre.
The best drama was the revival of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf with Imelda Staunton. In fact there were many great acting performances this year- I’d also pick out Imelda Staunton again in Follies and Robert Lindsay in Prism but the crown must go to Ian McKellen as King Lear at Chichester Festival Theatre.
Looking forward to 2018
If 2017 was a good year, 2018 looks like being even better. There are so many wonderful prospects that it’s going to be very hard for we theatre lovers to choose what to see. Here’s my choice.
And straightway I’m having to choose between two productions of Macbeth. My money’s on Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff at the National Theatre (26 February – 12 May) but there’s no denying the prospect of Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack performing for the Royal Shakespeare Company (13 March – 18 September) in Stratford is hard to resist.
There are some fabulous musicals on their way. Tony (Angels In America) Kushner’s Caroline, or Change with Sharon D Clarke wasrapturously received in Chichester. In 2018, it reappears in the lovely Hampstead Theatre (12 March – 21 April). Strictly Ballroom The Musical which I saw and loved a year ago at West Yorkshire Playhouse gets a well deserved London run at the Piccadilly Theatre (29 March – 21 July). The emotionally charged winner of five Tony Awards, Fun Home has its UK premiere at Young Vic(18 June – 1 September).
There’s a star studded production of Pinter’s The Birthday Party appropriately at the Harold Pinter Theatre (9 January – 14 April). When I say starstudded, the cast includes Toby Jones, Zoe Wannamaker and Stephen Mangan to name but three.
I thought Carey Mulligan was wonderful in Skylight so I’m looking forward to her return to the West End in a one woman play by Dennis Kelly called Girls And Boys which describes the unravelling of a relationship. That’s at the Royal Court (8 February – 17 March).
Alfred Molina reprises his 2009 success playing the painter Mark Rothko in Red at the Wyndham’s Theatre(4 May – 28 July). It will again be directed by Michael Grandage and will also star Alfred Enoch.
Near to where I live, Nuffield Southampton Theatres open their exciting city centre space with a new play by local lad Howard Brenton. The Shadow Factory looking at Southampton in the Second World War runs from 7 February to 3 March.