Between the Broadway-by-numbers blare of the awful (and awfully popular) Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and the recent disappointment of the NT’s Here Lies Love, I’d begun to think that any affection I had for musicals had been left behind in the Lyttelton auditorium the day The Light Princess closed. Happily, though, that love has now been at least partially restored thanks to a somewhat surprising source: Made in Dagenham, by Richard Bean (book), David Arnold (music) and Richard Thomas (lyrics), which is currently in previews at the Adelphi Theatre before its opening on 5th November.
Directed – another surprise, this – by Rupert Goold, the new musical takes off, of course, from Nigel Cole’s 2010 film, which focused on the 1968 sewing machinist strike at the Ford plant in Dagenham, Essex, where female workers staged a walk-out in protest at sexual discrimination and in demand of equal pay. I wasn’t much of a fan of the film: it’s in the Monty, Billy, Pride-y tradition that I find myself allergic to by temperament, and it struck me mostly as a more feeble variant on Cole’s previous attempt at cosy girl-power uplift, Calendar Girls (2003).
But although the basic plot trajectory and most of the main characters have been retained in the musical, the end result is much more vibrant and enjoyable. Arnold’s appealing score is (predominantly) poppy and upbeat (though textured enough), and Bunny Christie’s set is big ‘n bold. But the focus on “ordinary” characters, and the gleefully incorporated abundance of local refs, give this show an important connection to British people’s lives and experiences that the rash of Broadway imports simply cannot match.
Indeed, what I liked most about Made in Dagenham is precisely its sheer, unrepentant Britishness. Cheerfully (sometimes excessively) crude, the material is (as often with Bean and Thomas) a combination of the witty and the strained. But at its strongest the show has something of the cheek, charm and cleverness of on-form Victoria Wood. In fact, with its lyrical nods to Swarfega and Stoke Newington, and one scene set in – believe it! – a Berni Inn, this is the most boldly British big-budget West End musical I can call to mind since Wood’s own fitfully brilliant Acorn Antiques nearly ten years ago.
The political context of the real-life events that inspired the show is lucidly sketched, and central to that aforementioned Britishness is a bracing (and currently quite unfashionable) anti-Americanism. This aspect of the show – pretty brave when US success is still deemed the Holy Grail for any British cultural product - is encapsulated by the great appearances of Steve Furst as the villainous US boss Tooley, who gets a sublime Act II number that’s a terrifically full-on satire on the Land of the Free’s sense of its superiority to … well, everybody else. Somewhat more affectionately lampooned is Harold Wilson (a full-on funny Mark Hadfield) who’s presented as a silly duffer bumbling and blustering in his response to the women’s demands.
Though the show doesn’t do as much it might to characterise the female workers, the cast perform together engagingly (especially on the wry early rouser “What We Want”), with a couple of stand-out turns. In the central role of the reluctant rep Rita, Gemma Arterton starts out overdoin’ the Essex girl diction a tad. But the performance deepens into something truly winning as the production progresses, with the actress singing by turns stridently and sweetly, and nicely charting the protagonist’s gradual growth into rebelliousness.
Sophie Stanton, as Beryl, isn’t given much more to do than saucy quipping but Heather Craney (memorable as the upwardly mobile Joyce in Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake) gets a nicely eccentric solo spot, and the brilliant Isla (slummin’ it) Blair is wonderful as Connie, the shop steward who’s pivotal in Rita’s consciousness-raising (which occurs in that Berni Inn, wouldn’t you know). And in terms of feminism, the show at least puts its money where its mouth is, giving both Blair and Sophie-Louise Dann (a hoot as Barbara Castle) two of the strongest solo moments in the piece. (Dann’s impassioned rip through the brilliant, very Woodian “An Ideal World” is a true show-stopper.) Meanwhile, Naomi Frederick maximises her somewhat underwritten role as Lisa, the posh Factory owner’s wife who offers the women back-up and Biba, and excellent Adrian der Gregorian does well as Rita’s hubby, especially on a poor-me ditty that’s a variant on Merle Haggard’s great abandoned-man entreaty “Holding Things Together,” and that stands up well to that comparison.
Reflecting rumoured rewriting, the structure of the piece isn’t airtight, with some thrown-away plot strands and a slightly rushed finale. However, the more ambitious numbers are slickly staged and the evening moves fluidly for the most part. Still, it must be said that I’ve never seen a show that’s quite so blatant in predetermining audience response. Ushering us into the interval with the inimitably catchy striker’s anthem “Everybody Out!” is a witty touch, but closing the show with a number named “Stand Up!” might be the most barefaced attempt to get a Standing O out of an audience that the West End has ever witnessed. (It’s a shame that that closing song is actually one of the show’s weakest, though damned if the audience doesn’t comply and get on its feet anyway.) But, despite a few shortcomings, Made in Dagenham turns out to be a very pleasant surprise overall. It’s a funny, characterful, congenial and quirky-enough new British musical that I for one would be happy to see do well.
Ticket provided by Official Theatre.