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Made in Dagenham

by on 1 November 2017

The Musical That Ticks All the Boxes

Made in Dagenham

BROS Theatre Company, Hampton Hill Theatre until 4th November

Review by Eleanor Lewis

The single most frustrating thing about Richard Bean, David Arnold and Richard Thomas’ musical Made in Dagenham is that you can’t sell it to someone who’s never seen it. It’s the story of the women machinists at Ford, Dagenham and their struggle for equal pay in the late 60s and early 70s. Standard response to this as an evening’s entertainment is: “right, lovely, all for equal pay (who isn’t?) loved the film but do we really need a musical as well?” And that would be the point at which that individual’s quality of life would be a tiny but significant bit reduced.

Dagenham is that rare thing, a musical that ticks all the boxes, It’s well written, very funny, the music is memorable with grown up lyrics, and it tells a complex story efficiently and without patronising its audience, including those people who don’t do musicals – “God no! Is it a musical? You didn’t say it was a musical, I loathe musicals!” was the genuinely horrified reaction of a friend’s girlfriend, not paying full attention to what she’d been invited to. More of her later.

Dagenham 2

 

A strong show done by a strong company in the depths of October is going to sell out and Dagenham duly did, quite early. The production then had to live up to expectations which it also did, seamlessly. The energy and talent on show at Hampton Hill did not disappoint nor were there any visible signs that the challenges of putting on this spectacle had been too much. Dagenham is a long show – not that you notice – it covers a lot of ground and therefore requires a director who knows what he’s doing (not to be taken for granted in amateur productions). Wes Henderson Roe, as well as directing, also created a set that worked on all levels, allowing scene changes to take place efficiently with no extraneous activity and including an upstage office on a balcony accessed by a surprisingly unobtrusive, almost centre stage staircase, making use of the entire visual playing space. Clever.

 

What Connie would've said

Under the guidance of shop steward Connie, the show’s central character, Rita O’Grady is persuaded to lead the machinists’ protest and then the strike despite having no previous experience. The story is based on true events but Rita and her husband Eddie are fictional characters, emblematic of the Ford workers at the time. O’Grady is therefore the type of character that actors probably dread because she’s an unremarkable, ordinary, nice wife and mother. Her husband, Eddie is unremarkable, nice and ordinary too. How therefore do you make them engaging? How do you take an audience with you, make them sympathise with your character and want what they want? What do you have to work with? I have no idea, I’m only the reviewer but Dagenham is well enough written to give you plenty of clues. Lacey Creed and Martin Wilcox as Rita and Eddie evidently found the clues and succeeded not only in creating a believable family unit, with some talented younger actors as their children (Emily Pegler and Noam Sala Budgen), but also in drawing the audience into their world and making them care about them.

There were many and varied opportunities for actors to shine in this show in every kind of role and BROS Theatre Company is fortunate in being able to provide a consistently high level of performance across the show. There was the trio of shop stewards Bill, Sid and convenor Monty played respectively by John Paul Sutherland, Berni Messenger and Carl Smith, sometimes in their elevated office commenting on the action, sometimes interacting with the rest of the cast their banter authentically delivered, their characters believable. There were Rita’s workmates, notable among them the verbally challenged Clare played astutely by Aggie Holland whose job it was to sing the fabulous Wossname. Many women sing well, fewer can do comedy. Aggie Holland does both but understands how to do comedy better than a lot of people.

Where comedy is concerned it might be overdoing it to wonder wistfully whether Steve Taylor and Clair Jardella should be available on the NHS in these trying times, but for those of us old enough to remember the 70s, Harold Wilson lives, still. Steve Taylor is a talented actor but his portrayal of Wilson as a combination of eccentric, spasmodic intellectual desperation could only be described as weirdly adorable. Clair Jardella, surely not old enough to remember the force of nature that was Barbara Castle nonetheless played her entirely convincingly, her rendition of Ideal World a showstopper.

The singing in this production was outstanding, as might be expected from this company, every set piece choreographed expertly by Susi Pink, filling the stage with energy. The technical skill of Edz Barrett’s This is America and the poignancy conveyed by Martin Wilcox’s rendition of The Letter were only two of many strong individual performances.

Other gems amongst a raft of sound performances included Lizzie Brignall who was playing against type and gave a subtle and accomplished performance as Connie, the women’s shop steward a character who had battled all her life for the equality she began to see as being within Rita’s reach. Not the easiest role to play but Ms Brignall did an impressive job with it, she was totally convincing. Greg Smith, a young actor beginning what may be a promising career, played a couple of small parts very efficiently, in character all the time, at no point either over the top or self-conscious

Any issues with this production were tiny ones: Kerry McGee’s Beryl veered rather more towards caricature than it needed to. It’s true to say that if swearing were an Olympic sport, Beryl would lead the British team, but despite this the character is an authentic working class woman with more than one dimension. Lacey Creed as Rita struggled a little with pitching, an opening note sometimes eluding her and I wasn’t entirely convinced she understood the running gag about Martin Luther King, she rather threw it away a couple of times. (Whenever Rita lacks the confidence required to take the lead and wants to compromise in some way, she is reminded of King’s struggle for race equality and she responds with “you know they shot him”). These are only details and in neither case did they matter significantly, Beryl got all the laughs she should have in all the right places and Rita had the audience on side the whole time, in fact the audience reaction to this show – standing ovations both times I saw it – is probably all you need to know.

If Made in Dagenham were still on this reviewer would highly recommend it, it was a strong, highly entertaining and well executed show, but perhaps its best recommendation would be from the previously mentioned friend’s girlfriend who loathed musicals: “I loved it, absolutely loved it – did you say they were an amateur company?”

Eleanor Lewis
November 2017

Images by Handwritten Photography

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