Book: Richard Bean
Music: David Arnold
Lyrics: David Thomas
Director: Douglas Rintoul
Musical Director: Ben Goddard
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
As the opening production of his first season as Artistic Director of the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch, Douglas Rintoul takes the audacious step of staging the first regional production of Made In Dagenham. It’s a brave choice, not only did the show fail to find its feet in a competitive West End, but the setting of the show, Ford’s Dagenham plant, is a stone’s throw from the Essex venue.
Now the show transfers up the A12 to co-producers the New Wolsey Theatre and, while that local connection may be slightly more distant, the piece loses none of its punch.
Based on the groundbreaking strike by the women machinists of Ford, walking out to gain equal pay and conditions to their male counterparts, Made In Dagenham continues the strong vein of social British musicals. There are echoes of Billy Elliot here but this is no copycat production, this is a musical that seems fresh, vital and as relevant today as those strained times in 1968.
The piece may have started life on the big screen, but its move to stage musical seems wholly apt. Douglas Rintoul’s actor-musician staging allows the focus to fall on these inspirational women in a tight, well-oiled production.
The star casting of the West End may have gone but in its place Rintoul has assembled a fine ensemble, lead by Daniella Bowen as a working mum and unlikely crusader for change, Rita O’Grady. Torn between her desire to be the perfect wife and mother and her outrage at the inequalities she and her colleagues face, Bowen draws a richly detailed character. Determined her daughter will have more opportunities than she did, Bowen’s Rita is a true inspiration for reform.
Alongside the fictional O’Grady (an amalgam of several real women), is the very real Barbara Castle, Minister for Employment. Castle may seem a sympathetic port to the women’s plightbut tasked with breaking the strike by Harold Wilson (a gloriously comic portrayal from Graham Kent), Castle’s course isn’t straightforward. In Claire Machin’s portrayal of Castle, though, we’re given a vision of a woman, had the timing just have been slightly different, could have been the country’s first female PM.
In Richard Bean’s book, it is the women, perhaps unsurprisingly, who are strongest drawn. The pint-sized tornado Beryl (Angela Bain), the would-be pilot Cass (Martina Isibor) and the union convener Connie (Wendy Morgan) – all well-defined characters that capturethe sense of change and frustration prevailing at the time.
The men are less clearly drawn, and are certainly less favourably portrayed, capturing the sense of misogyny and discrimination prevalent on the factory floor. Alex Tomkins as Eddie, Rita’s somewhat overshadowed husband, is the most fully developed of the male roles, with Tomkins delivering a man battling to keep his family together, hide his feelings and still portray the South Essex Man stereotype that tradition has dictated.
It may have a strong social message but there’s also fun to be had. Richard Thomas’ lyrics contain many witty one liners ‘Made in Dagenham/Laid in Dagenham’ and a satirical look at American culture, complete with a Donald Trump lookalike owner of Ford Motors provide plenty of laughs.
Slick musical direction from Ben Goddard sees David Arnold’s cheery, infectious score lift the audience, with Tim Jackson’s fast moving choreography complimenting Rintoul’s direction well. The simple yet adaptable set by Hayley Grindle echoes the piece’s cinematic roots, allowing for smooth, seamless transitions between scenes.
While the performances and stagecraft impress, it is, though, the strong social message that shines through. The women’s fight at Dagenham may have been at risk of slipping into obscurity but this reclamation of an important British musical has given that history an oil change, a tune-up and recharged the battery.
In this newly resprayed and highly polished production, there’s plenty of mileage ahead for Made In Dagenham.
Runs until 15 October 2016 | Image: Mark Sepple