Originally published on London Box Office
Musicals that are based on films are popping up all over the West End at the moment. Maybe these shows are trying to emulate some of the success of the West End gold standard Billy Elliot, which has made the successful transition to the stage after being an iconic film that I and love. Well it’s time for another production to tell its story and hope to gain a piece of the glory – taking over from The Bodyguard, I went to see the Adelphi Theatre’s latest offering.
Based on true events, Made in Dagenham tells the story of Rita O’Grady (Gemma Arterton), a working class mum from (yes, you guessed it) Dagenham. O’Grady, like most other women in Britain at the time, plays the role of wife, mother, housekeeper and factory worker on a daily basis. But when the factory that Rita and her husband work at decide to downgrade the women’s pay to unskilled, Rita and her coworkers decide to finally do something about it. Realising how unfair it was that women should be paid less than men, Rita masterminds a series of events that challenge the factory, the unions and even Parliament itself in the ladies’ quest to receive equal pay. Of course in the meantime, Rita has to deal with the stress and sacrifices this puts on her home life whilst husband Eddie (Adrian Der Gregorian) is left to pick up the pieces.
Even writing the synopsis just now, I couldn’t help but compare parts of this story to Billy Elliot and the whole production does have a similar feel – working class families standing up and fighting against a middle class Government system. The set is cleverly made to look industrial; Bunny Christie (Olivier award for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) has transformed the stage to look like a factory production line. I love how the moving walls look like cart parts in an injection mould and throughout the show there is a moving line of car seats on a conveyor belt above the stage. The strong post box red colour theme really resonates with the workers’ fight against Labour despite their party ‘support’ of the working classes.
Unlike Billy Elliot however, here the women take centre stage both in the story and in the performance. The overall female ensemble is much stronger than the men’s (who are mainly quite weak and lacklustre) and the stand out lead characters are mostly female. Arterton is a convincing actor – she has a great mix of East End steel and vulnerability worrying for her family. But her singing is weak and often flat, which may be why she doesn’t do a single song without support from her female cast members. But I have to praise her interpretation of the songs – “Everybody Out” is a great show of feminism and solidarity and “Stand Up” is a really emotional plea at the end of the show. I couldn’t help humming both of these as I left the theatre and so must give credit to David Arnold’s music here. My other standout female characters were Beryl (Sophie Stanton) as a hard-faced, foul-mouthed factory worker who provides well-timed comic relief and Barbara Castle (Sophie-Louse Dann) as a Labour MP appointed by Harold Wilson (Mark Hadfield) himself to combat the unions and the factory workers. Dann was confident, bold as brass Northern and her main speech before “Ideal World” had gravitas; I was completely on the edge of my seat in that scene and thought her singing was almost flawles.
I admit that I have praised the women over the men here (well the women did eventually win Equal Pay) but there was one male performance that had the whole audience howling with laughter. Harold Wilson (Hadfield), the Prime Minister of the time, was a completely brilliant, satirical caricature and was performed to perfection. In accent and looks, Hadfield had the Labour PM down to a tee. But writer Richard Bean (also of One Man, Two Guvnors) and director Rupert Goold (Artistic Director Almeida Theatre) have jointly concocted a role that is over the top, sexist and rude for Hadfield to make the most of. The speech he gives to the factory workers in Westminster and his dancing say it all, this character is a real triumph and a whole team effort.
The whole production is not unlike Hadfield’s character – it’s a bit of a laugh and a bit over the top, but at the same time it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Some aspects of it I thought were spot on (the set, the satire, some of the characters and some of the songs) but others were too cheesy even for me. There were a couple of hideous songs (“Viva Eastbourne” sticks in my mind) and some disastrous dancing/ singing/ acting but the story has heart and I couldn’t help but get behind the characters – as honest, down to earth working mums they are immediately loveable. I just think some parts to this show were trying too hard and detracted from the overall message.