“Rome may not have been built in a day but Dagenham sure was”
Based on the real-life tale of the Ford sewing machinists whose strike in 1968 kicked into motion a groundswell of a movement that shook Harold Wilson’s administration and culminated in the Equal Pay Act of 1970, Made In Dagenham is one of those rare beasts – a brand new big-budget British musical. William Ivory wrote the story up into a 2010 film by Nigel Cole but here it is Richard Bean who has written the book, with David Arnold composing the score and Richard Thomas penning the lyrics, with Rupert Goold taking on directorial duties.
The show naturally has had a lengthy preview period (opening officially 5th November) and I saw it a week ago, not having intended to write about it, but after a couple of people emailed me to ask my opinion, I thought sod it, I’ll write it up! So take it all with a pinch of salt, I suspect the show may not be to the liking of some but I really rather enjoyed it, with its huge amiability, its cracking lead in Gemma Arterton and that crucial level of interest that comes from a true story (and one whose legacy continues today, somewhat unresolved). I’ll be going back soon but here’s what I thought first time round.
Between them, Bean and Goold seem to revel in making slightly off-kilter decisions. Making Harold Wilson an unreconstructed comedy character complete with end-of-the-pier routine with a bit of soft-show here and some salty humour there is simply bizarre, though Mark Hadfield makes a genuinely decent fist out of it. Another choice that seems rather random is the striking opening visual in the bedroom which doesn’t really play out as you think it might.
But there’s plenty of things that do work – the airfix-inspired design by Bunny Christie is brilliant as is Jon Clark’s vivid lighting design and David Arnold’s score shows signs of being a cracker – at its best when best when it plays up the 60s influences in the boys vs girls swing of the opener, the girl group sway of the women chatting about life in the factory, (especially in its gorgeous middle eight), the cheeky smile of Eddie’s make-up song for Rita. I can still hum at least three of the tunes and look forward to revisiting and relistening.
And a whole range of striking performances that form a great ensemble. Sophie Stanton’s filthy-mouthed Beryl is undoubtedly my favourite but Heather Craney’s slightly bonkers Clare, Sophie Isaac’s ambitious Sandra and Isla Blair’s determined Connie all shine through too. It’s a shame she only gets the one big song by Sophie-Louise Dann certainly makes it count as a fearsome but fabulous Barbara Castle and Naomi Frederick’s under-developed but excellently-played middle class ally gets one of the biggest laughs with a line about a horse.
Oddly enough, the show is at its weakest when it tries too hard to fit into the traditional mould. The choice to bring in slo-mo choreography (by Aletta Collins) for the Act 1 closer ‘Everybody Out’ (see below) doesn’t really work, a shift into something too theatrical perhaps that just isn’t needed especially with the wonderfully strident message of the song and the honest pragmatism of the women themselves.
And after the interval, another big production number comes with the introduction of the big bad US boss which again feels out of place – I’d rather find out more about these women and their lives than be overly subjected to a character whose main point of humour is (unacceptably in my view) saying the word f*ggot on three separate occasions (and getting a laugh each time…)
So it’s good that Steve Furst’s Tooley doesn’t linger too long and that the wonderful Gemma Arterton is allowed to shine once again. She may initially seem a little bit too glam for the part (kudos to the casting directors at David Grindrod for assembling such a ‘real’ looking ensemble, but she really does nail it. The indignation of being treated as a second class worker, the barely-willing rep for her friends and co-workers, the conflict between the short-term needs of her family and the longer-term societal shift that she slowly comes to realise she is at the forefront of. Arterton grows as does Rita blossoms and I thought she was excellent. And matched with the cuddly charm of Adrian der Gregorian as her husband, they make a hugely engaging personal centre to the larger political story.
So it’s a yes from me. The likes of Memphis may have something of that Broadway pizzazz but Made in Dagenham has an unmistakeably British quality about it that we should be equally proud of. There are things that could be worked on, and may well be being tinkered with as we speak, but I’m already looking forward to going again and that should be an indication of how I felt. Let me know how you found it if you’ve been already.