Review – The Taming of the Shrew, RSC, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 19th March 2019

The Taming of the ShrewIf you can’t decide whether a comment is sexist or not, I always think it’s worth imagining what it would sound like if it was said by someone of the opposite sex. Imagine, for instance, Miss World commentaries from the 1970s spoken by a woman about a bunch of men, and it doesn’t sound right. Pretend the presenters of Strictly Come Dancing are men and then say what the female presenters say about the bare-chested male dancers as if they were talking about women. You soon come to a helpful conclusion.

The CompanyWhen you consider those things that men are sometimes apt to say about women, or how they behave with them, or how a male-dominated society treats women, you can probably think of a number of ways in which things ought to change. Justin Audibert’s The Taming of the Shrew sheds light on the dark area of how men have traditionally ruled the roost over women in a fierce, funny and often ghastly new production.

Bianco, Baptista and KatherineImagine, if you will: 1590s England is a matriarchy. Women make the decisions, women hold rank, women own all the wealth, women choose their husbands. It’s Petruchia, rather than Petruchio, who’s come to husband it wealthily in Padua. Men are adornments; chastely virtuous chattel under the dominance of their mothers until it is decreed they should wed the woman of others’ choosing. One such family is headed by Baptista Minola, with her preening, compliant younger son Bianco, who has three suitors, Lucentia, Gremia and Hortensia. The other son is the firebrand Katherine. Yes, Katherine. It’s a girl’s name. All the other swapped-gender characters have masculined or feminined their name endings, but Katherine remains Katherine. No wonder he’s upset. He must have been bullied rotten at school.

Katherine and PetruchiaI don’t have to tell you the traditional story of the Taming of the Shrew, but in a nutshell: Lovely daughter Bianca can’t get married until dreadful daughter Katherine finds a husband. Enter Petruchio, who loves a challenge; woos her, marries her, then tames her by keeping her hungry, psyching her out, and even beating her into submission. At the end, there’s a magical transformation and she becomes the perfect wife. Put in those terms, it was high time for an alternative production. But it’s always been thought of as a comedy, because Katherine normally gives as good as she gets, and it becomes a true battle of the sexes.

PetruchiaAnd that’s where this laudable production slightly falls down. Whilst Petruchia is as alpha female as they get, Katherine himself isn’t really that awful. Yes, he has a temper, and eats like a pig; but apart from that, his general stage presence is surprisingly quiet – demure, almost. In traditional productions, the battles between Petruchio and Katherine are almost 50-50, maybe 60-40 on his side. But in this production, Petruchia wins 80-20, and rather than laugh at Katherine’s attempts to get her own back, we’re dismayed with horror at the sheer domestic abuse landed on the poor chap. Their relationship seems to have made both abuser and victim unhinged, and reminds us that women can abuse men just as easily as men abuse women. KatherineWhen Katherine delivers his final speech about the homely role of men, you sense this is not because his character has been transformed into a duteous, wifely fellow, but because he fears abuse and/or starvation if he doesn’t say it. It’s a shame that this Katherine isn’t feistier, as it might have been a bolder examination of what happens when you swap the traditional gender roles. As it stands, the quieter male Katherine rather lets the production off the hook as it ignores what it could have explored if it had gone a bit further.

BaptistaThat’s to take nothing away from the grandeur and humour of the production, especially in the first act. The traditional male roles played as redoubtable females are funny, telling, and beautifully performed; and provide a real eye-opener to the imbalance of the sexes, at least as far as this story conveys it. The second act loses some steam; I didn’t enjoy the totally irrelevant song and dance immediately after the interval, performed by characters whom we don’t recognise; and the subsequent scene between Grumio and Curtis goes on excessively long without really achieving much in the way of plot or character development. By then, the buzz of invention that had carried us into the interval had dissipated and for me the production never quite regained it.

GrumioI also found myself (unnecessarily, probably) irked by the fact that they didn’t swap the genders 100%. Why was Petruchia’s servant Grumio still a man? Why wasn’t she Grumia? The opening second act dance routine had men providing the singing with a decorative girl doing the dancing – shouldn’t the genders have been reversed? And why were the servants, who brought furniture props on and off stage, effeminate men rather than strong and able women? For a cheap laugh, I fear. A matriarchal society would surely give those important household jobs that required heavy lifting to reliable women of a lower class.

HortensiaStephen Brimson Lewis’ stately set serves its purpose, with plenty of doors to provide those occasional Feydeau Farce moments. Hannah Clark’s costumes are sumptuous, where sumptuous is required, and alarming where alarming is required. Most impressive were Ruth Chan’s compositions, superbly played by the six musicians perched above the stage, which varied from madrigal to West End showtune, and everything in between. I’m sure one of the group numbers was Italy’s entry to the 1592 Eurovision Song Contest.

Katherine - weddingClaire Price dominates the stage with her tyrannical and, frankly, terrifying performance as Petruchia. Unconventional, go-getting and heartier than Captain Birdseye, her characterisation also reminded me of the late Rik Mayall’s Lord Flash-heart on amphetamines. I think it was the hairstyle that did it. She gives a superb portrayal of someone who’s just allowed himself unfettered access to do whatever he wants, in order to get what he wants, no matter the consequences. Scary, but brilliant. Joseph Arkley’s Katherine never has a chance against her. More petulant than petrifying, it’s a strangely introverted performance; sour faced, but not really a shrew. This is perhaps most visible in the scene where he waits for Petruchia to turn up for their wedding – sulky, and a bit put out; but not angry. Even when he throws the flowers away it’s in despair rather than fury.

BiondellaAmanda Harris’ Baptista is a grande dame, well used to opulence and having the final say, and she runs her household with beneficent, but stern, matronage. James Cooney’s Bianco is an eye-fluttering, hair-wafting fetching young cove; Mr Cooney very cleverly reflects the traditional behaviours of a Shakespearean younger woman in his movement and his stance and it’s a highly convincing performance. There’s great fun between Emily Johnstone’s super-keen Lucentia and Laura Elsworthy’s Trania, her servant who acts as the lady, with all the pomp and circumstance she can muster. Amy Trigg brings out all the humour of her go-between role as Biondella, charmingly insolent with Baptista, yet trying to be a good servant; and Melody Brown gives a very strong showing as the domineering Vincentia.

GremiaBut once again it is Sophie Stanton who steals the show with her brilliantly comic performance as Gremia. It’s an old cliché I know, but Ms Stanton really could make you laugh your head off reading the telephone directory. The comic timing when she’s pleading her case for Bianco’s hand; the way she introduces Cambio “from Rheims”, “cunning in Greek, Latin, and other languages” – it’s just naturally inventive and truly a class act. She amazes you with the physicality of her ability to glide like a hovercraft, and the running gag with the sword and the scabbard is just brilliant. She’s quickly becoming one of my most favourite stage performers of all time.

Vincentia and KatherineIn the final analysis, this production boils down to an exercise to see what a familiar situation looks like when the sexes are reversed; and from that point of view it’s successful, although I think it could have gone even further. At three hours, it’s just as well they’ve dropped the whole Christopher Sly framework story! It’s playing in repertoire in Stratford until August, but then tours alongside As You Like It and Measure for Measure in Salford, Canterbury, Plymouth, Nottingham. Newcastle and Blackpool. Very enjoyable, and worth seeing to draw your own conclusions about this unusual battle of the sexes.

Production photos by Ikin Yum

Review – As You Like It, RSC, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 21st February 2019

As You Like ItThe prospect of seeing another production of As You Like It always fills me with excitement because it’s one of Shakespeare’s true crowd-pleasers. The cheeky, jokey relationship between Rosalind and Celia; the challenge of how to characterise the melancholy Jaques; the knowing sniggering of Orlando chatting up Ganymede when we all know it’s Rosalind; the rustic tomfoolery of Touchstone, Audrey, Silvius and Phoebe. Then there are also those little heart-warming moments, like Adam pledging allegiance to Orlando, and Orlando’s subsequent care for Adam when his life is almost at an end; and Celia facing up to her vicious father and refusing to leave Rosalind’s side. There’s a lot of kind friendship going on here.

Celia and RosalindI confess; I struggled to identify director Kimberley Sykes’ vision for this production. My only clue came from an article in the programme about how plays such as these would have been very much performed to and for the audience in Shakespeare’s time. As a result, there’s quite a bit of fourth-wall breaking. It’s as though they’ve taken Rosalind’s final speech, an epilogue delivered directly to the audience, and worked backward from there.

Orlando wrestlingTo be fair, some of this works extremely well. Whilst Orlando and “Ganymede” are wooing each other and pretending to get married, Celia joins us at the edge of the stage and casts tutting glances at individual audience members as if to share the thought, jeez how much longer is this going on? She grabs a programme off someone and tries to identify who’s on stage – and then she finds a funny photo in the programme and cackles with inappropriate laughter whilst pointing at it and others, just like an ill-behaved audience member might. Personally, I found that “irreverent audience member-act” hilarious. In another scene, Touchstone’s camera lens disintegrated so he gave it to an audience member to hold. On yet another occasion, Rosalind and Celia tried to outstare a gentleman in the front row. All these little incidents really helped to build a relationship between cast and crowd. Less so the moment shortly before the interval when Orlando got four people out of the audience to hold up pieces of paper that, when put together, read “Rosalind”. Rarely has so much audience disruption been caused for so little dramatic or comic gain.

Duke FrederickOther effects bludgeon us into some form of reaction. Touchstone is dressed throughout in homage to Scottish/American magician/comedian Jerry Sadowitz. Don’t ask me why. The arrival by the banished characters at the Forest of Arden is marked by the stage lights glowing bright, removal of the backdrop so we can see all the backstage gubbins, members of the cast walking round chatting willy-nilly, and a disembodied voice requiring Miss Stanton to appear on stage to perform her All The World’s a Stage routine (even though we hadn’t got that far into the play yet). Again, don’t ask me why. Many productions do away with the appearance of Hymen, the god of marriage, in the final scene, because it heavily detracts from any sense of realism. Not so with this production, where the stage is dominated by the biggest Hymen (if you’ll pardon the expression) you’re ever likely to see. Out of all proportion, it’s grotesque and ungainly and looks like an accident in a papier-mâché factory.

Forest of ArdenThis is a very strange evening at the theatre. On the one hand, you have some superb performances and a few laugh out loud moments that really take your breath away. On the other hand, the production has a strange energy-sapping effect, and by the time Rosalind/Ganymede has engineered the four-way marriage celebrations, you really just want to get out for some fresh air. Although the production aims to bring the audience and play closer together, it’s only Rosalind, Orlando and Celia who sustain your interest. The plights and intrigues of the other characters can go hang for all you care. Mrs Chrisparkle wore her bored look for much of the evening – OK I realise, that might have been because of me, but I sense (and hope) it was the Arden brigade.

JaquesOn a lighter note, the love triangle of Touchstone, Audrey and William is enhanced by having Tom Dawze’s William act as a sign-language interpreter between the other two characters; Charlotte Arrowsmith delivers all Audrey’s lines by sign language and this excellent element of inclusivity lends an extra dimension and weight to their relationship. Recently we’ve seen quite a lot of gender-bending in productions of the classics, and this production features female portrayals of Jaques, Le Beau, Amiens and Martext, all of which help you to see the familiar characters from a different perspective.

TouchstoneAnd there’s also a female Silvius – now portrayed as Silvia. This means Phoebe is now being pestered by a lovelorn young shepherdess; fair enough. However, the appropriateness of this change all unravels at the final scene. Ganymede promises to marry Phoebe if ever he marries woman. But when it’s revealed that he is a she, Phoebe’s reaction is if sight and shape be true, why then my love adieu – in other words, “oh no, you’re a girl, I only fancy boys”. Nevertheless she’s still instantly married off to a girl! I appreciate that the words of Hymen could imply that he has no problem with equal marriage – which, of course, is great – but it’s being imposed on Phoebe and for me, it didn’t make sense and it didn’t sit comfortably.

RosalindLet’s concentrate on the good things. Lucy Phelps as Rosalind – what a tremendous performance! A perfect blend of mischief and nobility, of girlish goofiness and authoritative courtier. Whether she be sharing a joke with her friend or trying to extricate herself from very serious situations, she constantly reveals little insights about her character and she is so completely believable. Very funny, very dignified; Ms Phelps absolutely nails it.

Rosalind SubmergedSophie Khan Levy, too, is perfect as Celia; long-suffering, easily giving in to temptation, and wickedly sarcastic. I loved how she transformed herself into a rock; and how her cynical side just melted away when she encounters the dreamy Jacques de Bois. She and Ms Phelps form a terrific double-act, both comic and dramatic. David Ajao’s Orlando is a simple, good-hearted soul, exuding enthusiasm in everything he does, and a great match for Ms Phelps as neither can contain their giggly romantic interest in each other.

CeliaSophie Stanton’s Jaques is a very intelligent reading of the role, full of wistful thought and interrupted emotion; calmly and unhysterically delivered. She doesn’t recite All the World’s a Stage like some powerful, previously well thought-out party piece, but as though the idea is coming to her as she says it; a concept developing in her brain as she works her way through the journey of An Average Life. The staging of What shall he have that kill’d the deer is less successful; the combination of Ms Stanton’s eerie vocal delivery and Graeme Brookes’ First Lord’s cervine scampering around the stage makes the audience uncertain whether to laugh or be concerned for their mental wellbeing.

OrlandoAntony Byrne excels at the dual roles of the two Dukes, one nice, one nasty; and I enjoyed the way the one became the other at that otherwise strange border crossing into the Forest of Arden. Sandy Grierson’s eccentric and perceptive Touchstone is a lot to take on board, and treads a fine line between annoyingly comic and comically annoying – which is perfectly reasonable for that character. Richard Clews’ Adam is a noble and moving performance – with a delightful singing voice too, and there’s a nicely bumbling characterisation of Corin by Patrick Brennan. Emily Johnstone’s Madame Le Beau steals every scene in the first act as she teeters into the sinking grass with her stilettos and speaks her servilities with wonderful emptiness.

Rosalind and SilviaThere’s no doubt that the fantastic cast carry this rather underwhelming production. It could do with a few more cuts and a little tightening up; at just over three hours including the interval it is a little trying at times. However, it’s worth paying the ticket price to see Lucy Phelps alone! In repertoire at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 31st August and then across the country between September and April 2020.

Production photos by Topher McGrillis

Review – The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, Royal Shakespeare Company, Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 14th April 2018

Fantastic Follies of Mrs RichI don’t think I’ve ever encountered the works of Mary Pix before. She lived from 1666 to 1709 and I presume must be considered one of the earliest female playwrights whose works are performed today; only the still renowned Aphra Behn appears earlier in history. In 1700 Mary Pix wrote The Beau Defeated, or The Lucky Younger Brother, which Jo Davies and her team at the RSC have unearthed and re-shaped into The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, a later Restoration period comedy of manners, and with which they have chalked up a most palpable hit.

Mrs Rich as Mrs RichMrs Rich (employing all the usual subtlety of 18th century character names) yearns for acceptance into society which she feels would fully recognise her innate style, elegance and quality. Trouble is, she’s all cash and no class. Pally with her cheeky maidservant Betty, whom she renames De la Bette because it sounds French, (although it sounds like it would mean of the beast!) she is the widow of a banker (who were clearly as popular in 1700 as they are today) and desperate to marry someone to get a title. Just the mention of the word Countess make her nose twitch excitedly like some Restoration Bisto Kid. In an attempt to become a Lady, she dallies with the foppish Sir John Roverhead, but he has an eye and a kiss curl for other ladies. Will Mrs Rich hit the big time with her social status or not? Will perhaps country squire the elder Lord Clerimont be the man she is looking for? You’ll just have to watch it to find out.

Susan Salmon, Tam Williams, Sophie Stanton, Sandy FosterMrs Rich is a dream of a comic character; one of a long line of pompous persons in drama who are ridiculed because of their pretentiousness. But she’s not just a female Malvolio. It’s her desire to achieve recognition of her quality to the outside world that is her true weak spot. She’s not actually an unkind person – far from it, although she will trample over you to get what she wants and if she spies a rival, woe betide them. She has Hyacinth Bucket’s need for everything to look perfect; she has Leonard Rossiter’s Rigsby’s desire to impress the mayor and join the golf club. You sense Mrs Rich would definitely wear The Emperor’s New Clothes if she thought it would bag her a Baron.

Laura Elsworthy, Daisy BadgerThis totally superb new production also plays around with the gender assumptions of the era. Though she may not have class, Mrs Rich has power, by virtue of her money. Normally it would only be men with that luxury. We see her powerplay with Sir John through her eyes rather than through his. She is surrounded by her own set of sycophantic women who, of course, support her every whim, until rivalry in love rears its ugly head and a duel ensues – but this time, it’s between two women.Jessica Turner, Daisy Badger In a side plot, it is the Lady Landsworth, who has come to a position of power by inheriting from a rich old reprobate when she was extremely young – we’re sensing Operation Yewtree levels here – who seeks to test potential future husbands/lovers/wealth providers by pretending to be a courtesan to see if they take the bait. Again, women control the men. Lady Landsworth’s object of desire is the pathetically lovelorn young Clerimont, who swoons to his bed with woeful regularity, thereby adopting the traditionally feminine role of languishing and being pursued whilst Lady L does all the running. It’s a fascinatingly different slice of life and of course extremely funny to see it from the other perspective.

Susan SalmonWhen you enter the auditorium, the fantastic orchestra is already there, knocking out Classics’ Greatest Hits but on saxophones! So you’ve already got a classic setting but with a surprisingly modern treatment, which sets the tone for the rest of the show. The backdrops inform you of the setting – so the salon chez Rich has an extravagant Hogarthian large scale painting on the back with the words Mrs Rich’s House spray-painted irreverently over the top. It’s classic, but it’s audacious. Young Clerimont’s rooms are depicted with a backdrop of a washing line with the name Mrs Fidget’s picked out in cross-stitch like a Victorian sampler. Colin Richmond’s costumes are exquisite, reflecting all the finery money can buy for Mrs Rich and her like, the practical country tweed for the huntin’ and fishin’ brigade, and Mrs Fidget’s “seen better days” cheap and cheerful look. Aretha AyehThe songs are by Grant Olding, who seems to be composing everything nowadays, and he’s clearly on top form as Mrs Rich breaks off from the narrative to deliver a few cabaret style numbers that do precisely what all the best songs in musicals do – push forward both the action and our understanding of the characters, with humour and pathos. If there was a cast album, I’d buy it.

Sandy Foster, Sophie Stanton, Tam WilliamsAt the heart of all the action is Mrs Rich, played with a tremendous sense of fun by Sophie Stanton. From the moment we meet her, dignity in tatters following an affront, you never want her to leave the stage. With her hair all bouffant’d up, and her portly skirts all hooped out, she looks like a cross between Madame de Maintenon and one of those dollies your Gran used to conceal a toilet roll. It’s a simply fantastic comic performance from start to finish, with brilliant throwaway lines (don’t forget your things, she mutters, as she dismisses her upstart niece), fabulous knowing looks to the audience we’ve not seen the like of since we saw Tyne Daly on Broadway, and – oh my stars – a complete revelling in the magnificent grandiloquence of her lines. Added to which, she has a startlingly beautiful and sincere singing voice that’s a perfect match for Grant Olding’s songs. She dominates the stage, but it’s a generous performance too, that allows her to be upstaged by the appearance of two lurchers over whom everyone fawns, whilst she’s left to pirouette vacantly as an attention-seeking device because the dogs are much more cute. A memorably classic comic performance.

Solomon Israel, Will Brown, Sadie ShimminShe is accompanied by a brilliant ensemble who take to the comedic opportunities of the show like a canard à l’eau. Too many to mention individually, but here are a few of the performances that really stood out for me. Solomon Israel’s brilliantly feeble Younger Clerimont had me in stitches throughout, as he mopes around in his blanket, lamely seeking solace from his manservant and landlady, the cheeky yet loyal Jack, played absolutely spot on by Will Brown and the delightfully faux-posh Mrs Fidget, played by Sadie Shimmin – whose fabulous drunk act brought back memories of Freddie Frinton.

Solomon IsraelDaisy Badger is a charmingly enthusiastic and confident Lady Landsworth, Laura Elsworthy a fearless and nicely impudent Betty, and Tam Williams a hilariously flamboyant Sir John. “I am…” he bows, flouncingly to Mr Rich, trendily removing “your humble servant” from the usual greeting to show his flighty modernity. “You’re what?” grumpily replies the surly brother in law.

Tam WilliamsMrs Rich’s gaming partners (who of course are out to fleece her) are beautifully played by Sandy Foster as the brilliantly pinch-expressioned and two-faced Mrs Trickwell and Susan Salmon as the trying-very-hard-to-be-French-but-not-quite-that-classy Lady La Basset. Amanda Hadingue is a hearty Toni the gamekeeper, and Leo Wringer an even heartier Elder Clerimont, terrifically conveying the unrefined enthusiasm of the rough diamond out-of-towner; a bit like Crocodile Dundee in New York but without the knives.

Amanda HadingueWe absolutely loved it and laughed all the way through. We could easily have gone back in and watched it again that evening; Duchess of Malfi was on instead though, so it wasn’t an option. I don’t think this is scheduled for a London transfer, so I urge you to get on to the RSC straight away to book tickets. It’s on until 14th June. Refusal is futile. You have to go!

Leo Wringer, Jessica TurnerP. S. Got to love those lurchers. Never work with animals they say, but these two spread joy on every appearance. On its final entrance to the stage the bigger one got sidetracked by the presence of an interesting chap in an aisle seat. You could almost hear the dog’s thought processes. “Hey! You look like a friendly type! Would you give me a stroke? Awww thanks! Any sweeties? I bet you do!! OK better get on with the show now. Bye! See you at the stage door!”

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

Review – Made in Dagenham, Adelphi Theatre, 27th December 2014

Made in DagenhamHaving 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?

Gemma ArtertonNot 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.

Adrian Der GregorianIn 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.

Isla BlairDagenham 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.

Sophie StantonIt’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.

Mark HadfieldGemma 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.

Scott GarnhamIsla 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.

Everybody OutLast 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.

EqualityThere 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.

CortinaNevertheless, 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!

e-cigarettePS. 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!