Theatre review: Made in Dagenham

Date Posted: 12/11/2014

Photo credit: Alex James.

The latest film-to-stage musical adaptation sees Gemma Arterton give a bold and brassy performance as factory machinist cum equal pay activist. Helen Cannon was in the audience on opening night, placards at the ready.

Based on the 2010 underdog Brit flick starring Sally Hawkins and Bob Hoskins, the plotline is inspired by the industrial action undertaken by female workers at the Ford Dagenham car plant. This bright, rousing musical blockbuster keeps the feel-good essence of the movie although as expected, its musical transformation takes away the gritty realism that I liked about the film.

Set in Essex, 1968, the play focuses on Rita O’Grady, played by Gemma Arterton. Rita works at the Ford Dagenham plant, but her life is changed dramatically when it is announced that the girls in the sewing room will have their pay grade dropped to ‘unskilled’ and will therefore be paid less than the men elsewhere in the factory. In fact I found the feminist issues taken on in the musical as current as ever – as depressing as that is half a century after the Dagenham strikes.

Rita leads her co-workers into a battle against the corporate giant, to the detriment of her relationship with husband Eddie (played by Adrian Der Gregorian), when the management try to dismiss their bids for equal pay. The industrial action garners national attention as the Harold Wilson government gets worried about damaging relations with such a major US manufacturer.

The music is upbeat and poppy although not especially memorable but catchy on the night nevertheless. Lyricist Richard Thomas delivered some cracking one-liners. One of my favourites, sung by American Ford boss, Tooley (played brilliantly by Steve Furst) in the star-spangled tanks and guns number, This Is America went: “We’ve got Hollywood and Vegas too; You’ve got Thames TV and Whipsnade Zoo.”

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

There is a lull in the action during the second act; this is probably down to the book written by Richard Bean as the script loses its oomph and focus as the strike drags on – it reminded me of sitting through his most recent comedy Great Britain. However the energy levels recover and the audience were on their feet come curtain call.

As for the staging, there were some very clever freeze frame moments. The Beatles-esque zebra crossing pose when the strike moves up to the Liverpool factory and The Last Supper tableaux when it looks like one of the workers is set to betray the women’s solidarity worked really well.     

The set was a pure joy to take in with the dynamic backdrop modelled on a giant plastic Airfix kit. Rita’s home was delightfully detailed with classic Kellogg’s cereal boxes, vintage magazines and nostalgic 1960s prints. The fashion was also a treat – although the fixation on which dress Rita should wear to address the TUC, undermined her feminist credentials somewhat.

With an incredibly strong ensemble cast all turning out top performances, star turns came from Sophie-Lousie Dann as Barbara Castle, who is tasked by Harold Wilson to rectify the dispute; her rendition of In An Ideal World was one of the night’s show-stoppers. The slapstick comedy from Mark Hadfield’s Harold Wilson got the audience laughing – his dead-panned entrance on a dodgem in the Viva Eastbourne number gave me the giggles. Gemma Arterton turned Rita into a ballsier version of the film’s counterpart and although her singing voice isn’t the most powerful, her stage presence was both commanding and charismatic.

As the pay gap between women and men continues to widen, I hope that bringing the Dagenham story to the stage will help remind people that change can be made – “nothing is changed if not challenged” Rita quotes in her TUC speech.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

Worthy issues aside, Made in Dagenham promises to have both men and women smiling, laughing and toe-tapping the night away. This is one to make a trip to London for.

Made in Dagenham is currently taking group bookings at the Adelphi Theatre until 28th March 2015. Discounted rates are available for parties of ten or more.


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