Having endured a not altogether rewarding experience in the afternoon at the matinee of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, I looked forward to our evening visit to see Made in Dagenham with some trepidation. I’d heard from one friend who had seen a preview that it was ace and that we would love it; I met someone else at a party who thought it was unmitigated rubbish and extended sympathy to us that we had paid for full price tickets in advance. Surely we couldn’t be unlucky twice on the same day?
Not a bit of it. Made in Dagenham is a funny, emotional, feel-good show that takes an important aspect of social history and brings it to life with an engaging cast that keeps up high energy levels throughout the whole evening. It has been adapted from the original 2010 film, with music and lyrics by David Arnold and Richard Thomas, and the book by the ubiquitous Richard Bean. Knowing Mr Bean’s penchant for involving the public in his shows we wondered if there would be any audience participation in this one – thankfully, not.
In 1968 the female sewing machinists working at the Ford plant in Dagenham went on strike for equal pay, to bring them in line with their male colleagues. The inequality had been underlined by the decision to class the women as unskilled workers, whilst the men were skilled. Today the concept of equal pay is a given (even if in practice, it still doesn’t quite exist) but in the 1960s, many people considered it was more important, if not desirable, for men to be paid more than women. This included the government, as well as an overwhelming number of the men at Dagenham. The story is based on the fictional character of Rita O’Grady, one of the workers there who had no ambition to be anything other than a mother, wife and sewing machinist, but who gets propelled into the world of union negotiations, finds she has something of a flair for it, and ends up conducting high level discussions with the powers that be, even though she’s largely out of her depth and comfort zone. The success of the campaign, and its effect on her home and family life, are what the show’s all about.
Dagenham in 1968 was a very different world from today; a black and white world where everyone was either West Ham or Millwall and the rule of traditional roles applied in families and at work. Although the strikers altruistically lose pay in order to achieve the goals for the greater good – namely a striving for equality – these ladies are no angels. The character of Beryl, for example, makes what today would be very inappropriate sexually intimidating comments to her co-workers of both sexes. Rita’s husband Eddie is a traditional guy who expects Rita a) to be a good wife, b) to be a good mother and c) to do all the shopping and housework. As Rita’s star rises, he falls behind into a position in which he feels very uncomfortable. He knows she’s doing good things, and he knows he ought to support her as much as possible – but it doesn’t come naturally, and when it comes to the crunch, he can’t take it. He’s inadequate, he’s a failure; and his inability to cope with this change of power emphasis is totally realistic.
It’s a smart and entertaining production on all levels. Bunny Christie’s superb set conveys both the modesty of the O’Grady residence and the technicality of the factory, with its scenic motif of mechanical parts ready to be punched out of their moulds, rather like the little pieces of plastic we used to click out to create Airfix models back in the day. The costumes perfectly reflect the dowdy uniforms of the workplace, contrasted with the glamorous Swinging Sixties’ styles – such as in the Cortina advert scene. The songs are good quality and keep the story moving forward, and the performances are all terrific.
Gemma Arterton gives a very strong performance as Rita; likeable, cheeky, irrepressible in the face of adversity from the authoritative figures of government or the employer Ford, and bloodied but unbowed in her grim determination to continue despite the effect it’s having on her family. She’s a great singer with an excellent stage presence. She is matched perfectly by a very effective performance by Adrian der Gregorian as Eddie, his brash personality slowly being beaten down as he struggles to cope with his wife’s increased status. The machinists make an excellent ensemble, although Sophie Stanton is outstanding as the no-nonsense Beryl, and there is a charmingly funny performance by Naana Agyei-Ampadu as Cass, who wants to become an air stewardess – cue for a delightful twist at curtain call time.
Isla Blair invests Connie, the self-effacing union rep who sacrifices her home life and her health for the good of her members, with a sense of iconic kindness – it’s not a very exciting role, but an important one. I enjoyed Naomi Frederick’s performance as Lisa, supporting the strike unequivocally despite being married to management, fighting her own battles to be taken seriously as a strong and able woman in her own right. There’s also great support from the rest of the cast, including David Cardy as well-meaning but toothless union rep Monty and Scott Garnham as charismatic Buddy the Cortina man.
Last but certainly not least, there are those famous politicians who played a part in the story. Prime Minister Harold Wilson is depicted as a Vaudevillian parody, doing silly dances and hiding behind his props of pipe and Gannex raincoat, looking after Number One and making sure his pockets are lined before any thoughts about what’s good for the country is concerned. He’s portrayed as being against the strike, not in favour of equal pay – and as such, deserves the mockery that the production heaps on him. He’s played by Mark Hadfield, a master of this self-deprecating, self-mickey-taking kind of comedy. However, possibly the best performance of the whole company comes from Sophie-Louise Dann as Barbara Castle; hearty, confident, calculating, a huge personality, and very credible – and with an amazing voice. We loved her in Forbidden Broadway and she’s superb here.
There was only one thing that jarred for me – the characterisation of the parachuted-in big Ford boss from America. The first song of the second act – This Is America – is a hard-hitting criticism of the “Everything is bigger and better in America” syndrome, which may well be worth criticising but to me it came over as rather xenophobic; and then it gets worse when that boss starts calling a member of the UK board “faggot”, which may well have been accurate for 1968 but makes me feel very uncomfortable in 2015.
Nevertheless, you come away from this show with your curiosity piqued by the story, and you want to find more about what actually happened in this strike, and about the real life characters who played a part in it. The show makes you realise the place this particular battle has in the history of equal rights in the UK, and that equal pay to women has been beneficial for both men and women in the long run. Beautifully staged and performed, with that added dimension of social realism, I recommend this very enjoyable show whole-heartedly!
PS. Here’s a first for us: when Act Two started, the woman in front of Mrs Chrisparkle lit up an e-cigarette, and continued to puff away at it for the first ten minutes or so. I have no idea if that was legal or not – but it’s certainly very discourteous and distracting. For one thing, the blue light it emits is as eye-catchingly disturbing as any light from a mobile phone. And then the e-smoke itself clouds the vision; and there’s also the smell, which doesn’t particularly bother me but Mrs C hates it. Oi! E-cigarette users! No!