Book: Richard Bean
Lyrics: Richard Thomas
Music: David Arnold
Director: Rupert Goold
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Turning a film into a play or stage musical has become fairly commonplace; yet in a discerning market, for every success like Grease or Hairspray there’s a misfire like Fatal Attraction. How much more difficult that becomes when the you take a film that had no songs in the first place, add a writer who’s never written a musical before and a leading lady who has never sung in one and the odds seemed stacked against it. Made in Dagenham takes these elements and somehow pulls together a pretty decent night out.
In 1968 at Ford’s Dagenham plant, its female workers were re-graded as unskilled labour and they organised a strike until the decision was reversed. Very quickly the walk-out became about equal pay as well, so what began as a small team of seamstresses wanting recognition for their skill became both an enormous corporate problem for American-owned Ford, and a political one for the male dominated trade unions and British government. Made in Dagenham interweaves the story of Rita, leader of the strike, with the equally significant effect on the domestic lives of the families relying on the automobile giant to pay their way.
This is a pretty good translation to the stage and the drama builds nicely from the factory floor to the House of Parliament and trade union conference. There are lots of nice touches showing the various ways in which society dismissed women’s views, including a schoolteacher telling Rita he knows how best to raise her child and a sexist comedian telling mother-in-law jokes at the local pub. Each of these scenes helps to build Rita’s frustration and eventually gives her the confidence to make a stand. But there is also some interesting and welcome insight into the men’s perspective too.
The show is packed with smart one-liners which audiences will love such as ‘Dagenham, so good they named it once’ and Harold Wilson on first hearing of the strike being shocked that women were still working as the Second World War has been over for ages. The songs are mostly pretty good too, although after a great opening the first Act loses its way for a while as a number of fairly dreary songs about Rita’s home life try to set the scene. Really the audience is itching for them to get on with the strike story which finally happens just before the interval with the rousing ‘Everybody Out’. Act 2 is considerably tighter with some great songs including the brilliantly ironic This is America, In an Ideal World sung by the character Barbara Castle and the very British Viva Eastbourne.
The cast too is very good; Gemma Arterton’s Rita goes quite believably from housewife to rabble rouser, determined to get exactly what she wants even if she sacrifices her family – a big theme of the show being the cost for women wishing to pursue careers – and Arterton gives her character plenty of initial steel that makes her a natural leader. There is a rather sappy subplot with husband Eddie (Adrian der Gregorian) which is where the dreary songs come in, but having some kind of love story is rule number one for any musical.
Other than a standout performance from Sophie Stanton as foul-mouthed Beryl who gets all the best lines, strangely the rest of the striking women are rather pale which is a shame, and it is other supporting characters that you will remember. Mark Hadfield’s truly bizarre Harold Wilson gets the biggest cheers for some comic dance routines, while Sophie-Louise Dann gives a great performance as the tough Barbara Castle.
Given the emphasis here on the domestic effect of the strike it would have been nice to see everyone back at the factory at the end, rather than finishing at the TUC conference, and although the music is pretty good, the songs could have had a bit more of a 60s feel to match the costume and choreography. Made in Dagenham is a lot of fun but also has a strong political message which is as relevant now as it was in 1968. As long as the pay gap continues to exist, this musical will certainly strike a chord.
Booking until 28 March 2015| PhotoManuel Harlan