‘Made in Dagenham’ offers feminism, floral 60s pastels and fun

“It ain’t about the money. It’s equality,” says Connie, a disillusioned union representative, paving the way for equal pay for men and women from a Ford car factory in Dagenham. Based on a true story, the musical Made in Dagenham follows a group of female machinists sewing car seats for Ford in a factory in Dagenham in 1968.

When they are re-classed as unskilled workers, despite having to take various tests to be employed, there is uproar. Striking to be awarded a skilled pay grade again, they soon begin campaigning for equal pay for men and women doing the same jobs, as opposed to the current 87 per cent women were receiving. Their voices mark the beginning of a successful strike as women everywhere stood up for their rights, leading to the Equal Pay Act of 1970.

Juggling the strike and her family, Gemma Arterton’s portrayal of Rita O’Grady is convincingly natural. Rita is one of the machinists, as well as a wife and mother, who is reluctantly persuaded to speak on behalf of the strikers. Meanwhile, her husband, Eddie, feeds the kids chips on toast – “well I know how to make chips and I know how to make toast” – and roughly 5,000 men are laid off because production has been halted.

Best known for her film credits including St. Trinians and Quantum of Solace, Arterton is a commanding and believable presence on stage. Her final speech, into the song ‘Stand Up’ where she urges the men of the TUC to support the strike, is particularly moving, ending the show on a rousing call for equality.

However, her character could have benefited from developing further over the course of the show, better charting the journey of an everyday factory worker finally standing up for her rights. From the beginning she seemed already too confident, too ready, so that when she finally spoke up, it felt less defiant and meaningful than it deserved to. However, this was more the fault of the playwright than Arterton herself.

A colourful collection of characters support Arterton to keep the musical going. A bored, highly-educated housewife played by Naomi Frederick has started buying everything one to the left of her usual shop simply to have something to do, and now has a cupboard of domestos and no coffee.

The politician, Barbara Castle, (Sophie-Louise Dunn) who the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, is delighted to hear is a woman because “she can do her own typing”, and who dubiously strives for an ideal world in which there is equal pay and “men know where to find a woman’s clitoris”, is likewise memorable. The machinists, a variety of women of all ages, are a strong group, headed up by long-suffering Connie (Isla Blair), and kept in good spirits by the humorous Beryl played by Sophie Stanton.

The set, designed by Bunny Christie (Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and A Streetcar Named Desire), was particularly impressive. The show opens with a two-storey house front complete with vertical bed to give us full view of Rita’s yawning husband. On the floor below Rita is already ushering the children off to school. She is soon joined by a chorus of wives, dealing with the domestics of everyday morning life before heading off to work.

This scene is quickly exchanged for a factory, car seats rotating overhead and the templates of car parts always just in view on the periphery. Politicians deliberate how to deal with the strikes in front of a giant clock, across which we see the occasional flock of birds flying, or the rolling patter of rain. The costumes are equally striking; loud floral patterns that land us effortlessly in the 1960s.

Some of the comedy seems misplaced, trying too hard to keep us laughing unnecessarily. There were too many times when the jokes fell rather flat, starting to undermine the gravity of an issue like equal pay. Mark Hadfield’s portrayal of Harold Wilson was an example of this, making jokes about his Gannex coat that flew over the heads of most audience members, and forming sentences via strings of sexist one-liners.

Security guards with American pompoms and political advisers doing the cancan were farcically ridiculous rather than genuinely funny. Henry Ford, owner of Ford car manufacturing, gun over shoulder criticising British pronunciation, was an unpleasant caricature rather than a serious political threat. These parodies devalued the struggle of the workers, almost making a mockery of their fight and undermining the immensity of their achievements.

Musically, ‘Stand Up’ is a rousing highlight and Rita’s husband, Eddie, (Adrian der Gregorian) sings a beautiful ballad, but there is not one song that stands out as particularly memorable. The score, like much of the rest of the production, was pleasant and unobtrusive, but made little lasting impression. As a whole, the show lacked the drive needed to tackle such a historic event and came off as disappointingly weak.

A whirlwind of pastel florals, equal rights and even a pirouetting Harold Wilson make for an enjoyable evening, and I didn’t begrudge a moment of it. Making politics more widely accessible, this is a commendable show, but the overload of comedy means it lacks power and falls short of its potential.

Made in Dagenham is playing at the Adelphi Theatre, London, until the 28th March 2015.

Photo Credit: Adelphi Theatre