“Don’t treat us girls like a poor relation
Made in Dagenham, in Dagenham – it seems like a no-brainer but it’s quite the statement of intent from incoming Artistic Director at the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch, Douglas Rintoul. It’s also a bit of a departure for a director who has previously won awards for writing hard-hitting monologues about gay Iraqi refugees (the exceptionally good Elegy) but taking a West End musical that didn’t quite become the hit it deserves and taking it home, refining it into an actor-musician production along the way, turns out to be quite the treat.
I can’t deny that I loved the show when it played at the Adelphi – heck, I saw it four times (review #1, review #2, review #3, review #4 of the final night) and I believe it deserved better treatment from the critics. But the past is the past and coming to the show with fresh eyes, and ears, too Richard Bean’s book and David Arnold’s score, it responds powerfully to the new treatment here (co-produced by the Queen’s and the New Wolsey Ipswich where it heads next), smaller in scale obviously but more intimate too, rawer in its emotions to an ultimately devastating effect.
Stepping into the shoes of Rita O’Grady, a (fictionalised) Ford Dagenham worker who lead her fellow machinists on a strike campaign that culminated in the (all too true) amazing achievement of the establishment of the 1970 Equal Pay Act, Daniella Bowen takes her time to make her mark but we come to see that it is a deliberate decision. This Rita really does lack confidence, in herself, in her ability, even in her marriage, and Bowen makes you feel every inch of her awkward pain – the beautiful ‘We Nearly Had It All’ thus drips with a startling bitterness, her earlier tears heartbreaking.
And on the flip side, once she finally believes in herself enough to deliver a climactic speech to the TUC, ‘Stand Up’ becomes this hugely passionate moment, truly transformative as the pieces finally fall together and it is goosebumpingly effective. Bowen is supported by a top cast of actor-musos who by and large cleave quite closely to the interpretations seen in the West End. So Angela Bain’s Beryl is hilariously profane and Sarah Scowen’s Clare daffy as a brush, Alex Tomkins’ Eddie is a lovable chump of a husband and Claire Machin is a brassy delight as Barbara Castle.
The broader edges of the comedy remain present and remain not quite to my taste – the end-of-the-pier take on Harold Wilson and brash Americana not quite sharp enough. But under Ben Goddard’s assured musical direction which plays out in Hayley Grindle’s highly functional design, Arnold’s score sounds fresh as a daisy. The richness of the female harmonies lie closer to the surface (‘This Is What We Want’ is just luscious) and more generally, the communal feel of the music is enhanced.
So a strong and sagacious beginning to Rintoul’s reign at the Queen’s (a wonderfully friendly venue I was visiting for the first time) and a loving tribute to the local area and the extraordinary efforts of its women – a legacy that sadly still needs to be reinforced to this day.