On the face of it, a musical about the real-life strike in an Essex car plant that paved the way for legislation on equal pay doesn’t exactly shout jazz hands. But Made in Dagenham, which opened at the Adelphi Theatre in London’s West End earlier this month, is an absolutely cracking show.
Based on the 2010 Brit flick of the same name and starring former Bond girl Gemma Arterton, Made in Dagenham has everything you could hope for from an evening of musical theatre: great characters, catchy tunes, witty lyrics and a script packed full of gags and pathos.
“Essex 1968. Like millions of other working women, each morning Rita O’Grady (Arterton) is just trying to get her husband out of bed, get the kids off to school and get to work at the factory on time. But life is about to change forever when it’s announced that the girls in the stitching room of Ford’s Dagenham car plant will have their pay grade dropped to ‘unskilled’. Quickly drawing on a strength she never knew she had, Rita leads her friends in a battle against the might of Ford and the corruption of the Union supposed to protect them. As the girls’ inspiring journey gets bigger than anyone could have imagined, the pressure is too much for some, but can Rita keep up the fight and the happy home she’s worked so hard for? Funny, touching and timeless, Made in Dagenham shows how ordinary people can do extraordinary things when they stand together.”
Rita’s progress from low-key machinist to reluctant but charismatic strike leader is skillfully portrayed by Arterton, who somehow manages to be both natural and understated while exuding what can only be called star quality. If you don’t feel compelled to leap to your feet during her speech to the Trades Union Congress, then I fear there must be something wrong with you.
Although Arterton’s lovely face is plastered all over the tube and on the side of London buses, Made in Dagenham is very much an ensemble piece. The stitching room is a variety pack of Essex women: gobby Beryl, daft Clare, dolly bird Sandra (channelling her inner Barbara Windsor), wannabe pilot Cass and union rep Connie. Star comedy turns beyond the sewing machines include Mark Hadfield hamming it up music-hall stylee as Prime Minister Harold Wilson, Sophie-Louise Dann as his fiery Secretary for Employment Barbara Castle and Steve Furst as dastardly Ford boss Tooley, who literally brings the house down with his outrageous number This is America. At the other end of the spectrum, Adrian der Gregorian tugs at the heartstrings as Rita’s bewildered husband Eddie.
Bunny Christie’s design is a tongue in cheek 1960s nostalgia fest, referencing iconic British brands of the era: Airfix, Biba, Babycham and Berni Inn. The promotional scene for the new Cortina (“Buy a Mark 2, you know you oughta. It’s like the Mark 1, only fractionally shorter”) is particularly hilarious and could really only be improved by the arrival of Austin Powers himself.
The songs by David Arnold and Richard Thomas fuse pop meolodies with biting lyrics. Stand-out numbers include Everybody Out, Made in Dagenham and Stand Up, while the sentiments expressed in The Letter strike an emotional chord.
The past year has been a torrid time for West End musicals, with new shows Stephen Ward, From Here to Eternity and X Factor spoof I Can’t Sing! all closing their doors early. That Made in Dagenham deserves to buck this trend is a no-brainer.
Watch the Made in Dagenham trailer and other video clips here.