There’s a sense of homecoming at The Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch, as the stage musical Made In Dagenham prepares to open at the Essex venue. Based on real life events at Ford’s Dagenham plant, just a short distance away from the theatre, this brand new production proves to be a fitting opening to Douglas Rintoul’s tenure as Artistic Director of The Queen’s. Rintoul took time out of rehearsal to speak to Glen Pearce about bringing Made In Dagenham home.
The death of the original British musical is proclaimed every time a new musical struggles to find its feet. Last year’s West End closures saw a number of high-profile casualties, among them the stage adaptation of the hit film Made In Dagenham.
While the show received critical and public acclaim in the West End, the commercial pressures of the market forced an early closure. Now, however, it’s returning to its roots, with a brand new actor-musician production opening at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch, just a stone’s throw from the Ford Motors plant that inspired the story.
For the Queen’s Theatre Artistic Director, Douglas Rintoul, the choice of Made In Dagenham to lead his opening season at the venue was clear. “The Queens has really such a strong history in musicals so I was really keen to start with a musical.” He explains. But why choose Made in Dagenham? “I wanted a piece that would make a big statement about and celebrate the area. I’m from Essex myself, so I think one of the things that I want to do at the Queen’s is make work that has a really strong voice that celebrates that identity.”
Rintoul’s previous work has often focused on strong social issues (immigration, community and belonging) so how does a West End Musical fit into that cannon? “It’s got a really strong social message- it’s really life-affirming, really upbeat, has really strong roles for women, and there’s a really interesting social commentary in there as well, which is really great to remember,” he offers
That social commentary is something the venue is keen to grow. The cast has already met some of the original women from the Ford factory who worked during the period portrayed and the venue is offering more than just staging the show, as Rintoul explains. “We’ve just got some funding to do a project where we’re going to train some young women to take oral histories – to interview and record oral histories from the women who were involved in those strikes from 1963-1984.”
The cast recently met Eileen Pullen and Gwen Davis, two of the pioneering women who helped lead the historical sewing machinists’ pay strike at Ford’s Dagenham plant in 1968.
For Pullen, now 87, the events portrayed in the musical are still vivid in her memory. “Back in 1968, we had no idea we were starting something that would become so important. It was lovely meeting everyone at the Queen’s Theatre. We never get tired of speaking about this special time in our lives.”
The production will be the first professional staging of the show following the West End run, something that Rintoul is very excited about, but how does he go about converting a West End show into a new production? “To take it out of the West End model we’ve really stripped it back. It’s a really simple story so I’ve just stripped it back to an actor-musician company,” he explains.
That actor-musician element gives the piece an entirely different scale from the big, commercial, West End production. “With the actor-musicianship, it becomes quite a different piece of storytelling, rather than being dominated by huge sets and special effects.” It is a scale that fits the piece well, believes Rintoul. “It’s quite a domestic story. There are moments within it that are high sheen and have a musical quality to them but lots of the scenes happen in the factory or the home, so in terms of the design and the way it functions we’ve really been looking at photographs and documentaries and what it meant to work at Ford, so in some ways it’s got a rawer quality to it.”
The realism is something this particular local audience will notice if it isn’t quite right, something that Rintoul is all too aware of. “Probably every single member of our audience will know someone who worked at Ford Dagenham, so that really shapes it in terms of it not being a glitzy affair.”
That local connection has seen excitement and interest already building, even before the show opens. “The community response has been really, really positive. It’s an exciting idea to bring the narrative back here and there’s really a shared ownership of that narrative in our area.” It’s an appeal though that spreads far beyond the immediate area, however. “Not only are people in our area excited but people are travelling from across the country to see a new version of it, which is great.”
The regional audience for the show has already expanded, with the Queen’s Theatre partnering with Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre to co-produce the show, and the show will play in Ipswich following its Hornchurch run. For Rintoul, the partnership was a natural one. “We have a very long history between the New Wolsey and the Queens and, while we’ve not really done work together before, there are lots of cross-overs. Sarah Holmes’ [the New Wolsey’s Chief Executive] first job in the UK was at the Queens and Pete [Rowe, Artistic Director at the New Wolsey] had directed stuff at the Queen’s, and I’d worked at the New Wolsey, so it seemed like an absolute fit.”
For Rintoul, co-productions offer many benefits. “I think in our funding climate, the more we get out of a production the better, particularly for actors. The great thing about doing a co-production is it’s a longer gig; they get to play the piece in front of more audiences.” The venue also sees benefits, of course. “The great thing is that our work in Hornchurch is then being seen by audiences across the UK. That’s great for local audiences to be quite proud that a production made there is being seen by other, new audiences as well.”
Made In Dagenham was a high profile closure in London but, for Rintoul, regional theatres offer more scope for creative interpretations. “I think there’s less pressure and you can take more risks to a degree because there isn’t that huge investment when you take a show into a West End theatre.” It’s a route he is planning to explore at the venue in the future. “ I’ve already commissioned a writer to write a new jukebox musical in about 18 months’ time. So I think it’s because we can start things off in a financially smaller way, oddly, we can take more risks.”
While London’s West End may be seen, by some, as the ultimate accolade, for Rintoul, regional theatre has a great deal to offer. “I think actually it’s really the regional venues that are absolutely the places where we can take greater risks with the work.”
The aforementioned ‘death’ of the British musical is often linked to the lack of new British musical composers, again Rintoul sees regional theatre as key to nurturing new talent. “There’s a whole lot of work of supporting emerging artists and getting them to engage with the form but on the commercial level, the pressure is so great. I think it’s only in regional theatres that we can support those artists and the musical theatre network.”
It’s an area that will take time to develop but Rintoul believes the rewards will begin to show. “I think there is a lot happening now in terms of supporting artists and venues to make more work. I have a feeling that if you give it five, six, seven more years I think we will be seeing a whole new generation of work coming through.”
Made In Dagenham marks Rintoul’s first full season at the Queen’s Theatre, a venue that has faced, like many venues, funding challenges. Something Rintoul is keen to address. “Yeah, it’s had some funding cuts from the local council but, when you look at other local councils around the UK, we’ve done quite well.” There’s a need to look at how a venue operates, he believes: “The thing for me is different financial models. It’s about the resources we have and using them really, really well to maximise on the impact that we can have with those resources. So partnerships with commercial companies and also with international venues – we’re doing a co-production with Luxembourg in about 12 months’ time, which is an interesting time in terms of coming out of the European Union but that’s £80,000 that’s coming into a production.”
Made In Dagenham, perhaps, is the first step in that direction, appealing to both loyal audiences but also a younger, newer audience as well. But why should an audience take a chance on Made In Dagenham? Rintoul has the perfect answer: “It’s a really life-affirming piece of work about how ordinary people can do extraordinary things. So it’s a really empowering, life-affirming musical.”
Made in Dagenham runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch 29 August to 17 September 2016 and the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich 21 September to 15 October 2016