The signs were so enormously encouraging.
A new (very) British musical with a crack team behind it. Music by James Bond film composer David Arnold, lyrics by Richard Thomas (Jerry Springer: the Opera), a book by Richard Bean (One Man, Two Governors) and helmed by Rupert Goold, AD at the Almeida who also delivered in spades (and axes) with the musical version of American Psycho.
On the downside Made in Dagenham is yet another film-to-stage adaptation.
Loosely based on the uplifting true story of the women in the stitching room of Ford’s Dagenham car plant who, in 1968, revolted against having their pay grade dropped to ‘unskilled’ leading to a strike for full equal pay status with men.
Gemma Arterton plays machinist Rita, reluctantly persuaded into becoming spokesperson for the girls as she struggles to keep her home life together. Her singing voice is decent enough though it is left for others around her to do the heavy lifting.
Bunny Christie takes the brilliant idea of basing her sets on Airfix model kits (presumably imported from Brobdingnag?) in exactly the right shade of grey, which is especially effective for the factory production line scenes. But even they, like the show, are overly busy and the visuals don’t have quite enough variation to truly engage they eye.
Some of the catchier numbers are raucous and shrill rather than melodic; some served with an agreeable sixties sound. A song praising the Ford Cortina “comes in white or creamer” was a kitsch highlight and there’s a Bruce Springsteen-ish number to open Act 2, where the American Ford boss (Orange mobile advert star Steve Furst, AKA Lenny Beige) is parachuted in to try and end the strike. He compares things America has given the world against what Britain’s produced with several amusing lyrics, but the punchline to each US/GB comparison was drowned by the band. Unfortunately using the word ‘faggot’, to get a cheap laughs, was far too audible.
But the biggest problem is it’s too broad (you might say too broad in the Bean); Bean’s book, despite a handful of laugh-out-loud jokes, verges on middle of the road sitcom fare. PM Harold Wilson is portrayed cartoonishly as a complete buffoon; did anyone not see the gag involving him and a stationery cupboard coming? When Mark Hadfield’s Wilson first appears
in a “This is what a Feminist looks like” T shirt with the expected pipe and Gannex, there was barely a titter of recognition, not because he doesn’t really look like him (which he doesn’t – but then neither did Mike Yarwood), but because a lot of the audience aren’t old enough to remember him. Sophie-Louise Dann‘s robust Secretary of State for Employment, Barbara Castle (who would have been 58 at the time) looks far too young yet still delivers some of the better moments.
It’s hardly ground-breaking stuff; expect the usual musical clichés to manipulate you. SPOILER ALERT. You know where you’re heading when you find out a character is ill in Act 1.
The factory girls are extremely well cast with most establishing a character of their own; Sophie Stanton’s potty-mouthed Beryl stands out particularly and there’s an agreeably played Barbara Windsor-type character that brings to mind the sixties’ militant machinist’s sitcom The Rag Trade. It’s also good to see a fondue set in a musical and Phil felt another pang of nostalgia during a scene set in a Berni Inn even though, sadly, he’d never enjoyed the sight of Isla Blair belting out a song as he tucked into his melon boat and steak and chips.
Phil’s eyes rolled as his theatrical bête noire, a park bench, occasionally rose up through the stage floor and he and his companion came out scratching their heads over a tableau pastiching The Last Supper. Can someone explain this please? It was too fast for us to spot the Judas. And while you’re at it, has anyone out there been to a Berni Inn in the last 3 decades?
The show’s final number “Stand Up” seems a cynical attempt to get the audience ovating. It was satisfyingly telling that few complied.
The production is a bit of an Airfix kit in itself. All the individual parts are there but glue is visible between the cracks. And like all Airfix kits the end result never lives up to what’s promised by the box.
Having said that the dreary poster’s not exactly going to drag them in either. Expect that to be changed.
This notice in the Adelphi’s foyer at last night’s preview (presumably the show is ‘frozen’ now, with the official opening on Wednesday) was guaranteed to niggle at Phil’s hackles. What are you supposed to do if you don’t want to be “photographed and recorded” and used as advertising “hereafter devised, in perpetuity”, chuck away your tickets and make a hasty departure from the theatre or be allowed to enter through the stage door? Pah!