Made in Dagenham

Oct 31 2019 | By More

★★★★☆    Up-standing

Church Hill Theatre: Tue 29 Oct – Sat 2 Nov 2019
Review by Thom Dibdin

As the political stew bubbles over the edges of the Westminster cauldron, Allegro’s big and bold production of Made in Dagenham reminds us of a time when politics was a lot more simple – and the issues were even more fundamental.

This is the musical adaptation of the true story of the female workers for Fords who, in 1968, took serious umbrage when their brother comrades allowed the company to downgrade the women’s work from skilled to unskilled status.

Zoe Brookes (centre) and the cast of Made in Dagenham. Pic: Sean Conner

And once riled, with the unions failing to take their side, the women decided that getting 83% of what skilled men were getting was not right either – and went out on strike for proper equal pay.

Richard Bean’s book adds in the domestic tensions in the households of the main characters, strong female characters, insipid male characters and some jaw-dropping male chauvinist piggery to create a peach of a piece of musical theatre.

With David Arnold’s music and Richard Thomas’s lyrics piling on the passion and some spiffing set pieces – including a splendidly retro car advert – there is plenty for a strong company to play with.

a righteous cause

And Allegro, with Felicity Thomas at the helm and James McCutcheon on MD duties, certainly is that strong company.

The politics here is natural – it would be hard to find anyone nowadays who would argue that women should not get equal pay for equal work. And with such a righteous cause under their belts, the 41-strong cast have little problems in making this both entertaining and inspiring.

Caitlin Davis, Ruth Harris, Zoe Brookes and Chrissie Thornton. Pic: Sean Conner

At the heart of the women’s struggle is Rita, played with real nuance by Zoe Brookes. A quiet woman who has aspirations for her two children and copes with her fellow Ford employee husband Eddie, she’s thrust into the limelight as one who is able to argue the sewing machinist’s case, with the support of the two union officials on their side, shop-stewards Connie (Audrey Jones) and Monty (Phill Dobson).

Brookes creates a strong sense of their domestic situation, with Alex Matthews nicely conflicted as Eddie and delivering an authentically raw vocal performance. They have excellent support from child actors Freya Reid and Luke Murray as their children, Sharon and Graham.

But it is in the workplace that Brookes shows her real skill, allowing the other more vocal characters to take the comic or loud-mouthed lead, while adding a backbone of real passion to the piece – notably in her relationship with Jones’s excellently described Connie.

The fellow machinists – Ali Wood as Sandra, Caitlin Davis as Clare, Ruth Harris as Cass and Chrissie Thornton as Beryl – all create believable characters. They are written to be a shade over-the-top, trading in cliche, and the four all make them memorable without being demeaning to them.

real humanity

Rachel Allison as Lisa Hopkins, wife of Fords’ local boss Jeremy (Paul Inglis) helps widen out the argument that this is about all women, not just this particular case. She gives a real humanity to the Biba-wearing classics graduate, equally incensed as Rita at the failure of the men to acknowledge the women’s true abilities.

Dominic Lewis, Lucy Wands, Michaele Turner and Nicole Johannesen. Pic: Sean Conner

The machinist’s fight took them right to the top – meeting with Barbara Castle, the employment minister, and even Harold Wilson, the pipe-smoking prime minister – while their strike caused Ford’s American bosses to fly in to Dagenham to try and suppress it.

There’s always a problem when musicals contain real historical characters – how much do you make them caricatures? The solution here is to make the men cyphers and give women the power.

So Judith Walker has really sumptuous part to play as Barbara Castle, and does so with a strong understanding of the acting and the singing elements of her performance. Dominic Lewis, however, sails very close to the wind with a somewhat effete comedy turn as Wilson that serves the purposes of the musical rather better than the memory of the late Labour prime minister.

strong political bite

Musically, this production stands up with the best. In terms of its presentation, Felicity Thomas has solved most, but not all, of the show’s problematic areas. The arrival of American boss Tooley (Jonny Farley) with his entourage of shade-wearing gofers is excellently done and the storytelling drives it all easily forward.

However there are an inordinate number of scenes in the whole piece, and the decision to change the scenery so often can diminish the sense of drive created elsewhere. That said, when more is left to the imagination, the big open set serves very well and the large cast fill it, without ever crowding it.

With a strong political bite, big emotional pull and a set-piece finale that should have you standing in solidarity, this is a great evening’s entertainment.

Running time: Two hours and 55 minutes (including one interval)
Church Hill Theatre, 33 Morningside Road, EH10 4DR
Tuesday 29 October – Saturday 2 November 2019
Evenings: 7.30pm; Matinees: Fri 3pm, Sat: 2.30pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.

The Cast of Made in Dagenham


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Comments (1)

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  1. Suzanne Senior says:

    I’ve just see this and thought it was a wonderful show. At first, having seen the film, I wasn’t sure how it would translate into musical theatre, but my doubts were soon dispelled.

    Zoe Brookes was fantastic as Rita and I wasn’t the only audience member who was moved to tears by her performance. The period feel was very well captured – I loved the white boots in the kitsch Cortina song and would like to have taken home a lot of the wardrobe!

    The music, although derivative in places, was very enjoyable and helped with the period feel. And especially in the current political climate., although dealing specifically with workers’ rights for women, the issue of workers’ rights and the potential loss of them is particularly relevant.