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Review of Made In Dagenham at the Adelphi Theatre

Made In Dagenham The blockbuster musical, MADE IN DAGENHAM, began life, like so much of current West End theatre, as a film.

I didn’t see it but it’s dramatisation of how female factory workers became empowered to demand equal pay for women, at some cost to their family lives was deemed a great subject for a musical.

You can see why, great characters, nostalgia for the early 1970s when the real life events took place and the rousing story of working class empowerment it presents have worked very well as the basis for Billy Elliot and the Full Monty. It’s also a classic Cinderella story of a mousey housewife who ends up dazzling the country in a designer frock.

Film star Gemma Arerton stars as Rita, our Cinders. She’s very pretty. Her songs have been carefully composed for someone with no singing range and as such she delivers them perfectly.

We first see her in a big dolls house set made, as is all of the scenery, from components of car manufacturing. She and her husband work for Ford in Dagenham, he’s on the production line, she helps sew the car seats. During a pay restructure her job is downgraded as unskilled resulting in the women receiving lower pay than the men. They need a spokesperson when their usual leader gets sick. Rita is persuaded to step up much to the indignation of her husband who has to cook chips for the kids and sing lots of key changes as a result. But, guess what? He’s really proud by the end when he sees her speaking at the TUC conference in the red dress.

Should I have given that away? I think it’s okay, the plotting is as grindingly predictable as a day’s work on the Ford assembly lines must have been.

Everything and everyone in this musical is given a cartoon treatment sapping the whole affair of any dignity. Script writer Richard Bean who had such a hit with the ribald, 70s sitcom humour of ONE MAN TWO GUVNORS has let rip once again with an approach that feels more like a series of Two Ronnie’s sketch than an account of a historic achievement.

It’s particularly crass in its depiction of the labour government of the time. Yes, it was steeped in a working class misogyny but Prime Minister Harold Wilson was so much more than a bumbling music hall clown with a funny voice. Think what an extraordinary achievement it was to establish working class, trade unionism as a driving force in a country previously dominated by Downton Abbey toffs. His minister for trade was even a woman, trail blazing at the time; the redoubtable Barbara Castle, striking fear into the hearts of any man who dared to undermine her. The musical reduces her to a series of Hilda Baker ticks and belting out the key changes of disposable anthems.

It’s hard to express how tow curlingly awful Richard Thomas’ lyrics are. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume their clumsy and inaccurate rhymes and scansion are an attempt to put working class expression on stage. Composer David Arnold has written a lot of film underscoring in his career the purpose of which is not to intrude on the dialogue but add a generalised mood to proceedings. The score of Made in Dagenham is testimony to his skill at this.

How can this show have gone through so many workshops to fine tune it yet still be so limp? Maybe once you’ve ordered all the expensive scenery, star casting and big orchestrations you get to a point where it’s too expensive and scary to turn back and you just have to plough on with fingers crossed. Rupert Gould is the director.

I never want to be one of those sour faced critics who are out of touch with the enjoyment of the audience around them so in the interests of fairness I should report that there were plenty of guffaws from the celebrity stuffed opening night audience.

And yes, there was eventually a standing ovation but in response to a song in which we’re challenged to stand in support of sexual equality. A clever touch that which ensures the whole audience will be on their feet at the end of every performance.

Lovely to see the real life women who inspired this uninspiring musical taking a bow at the press night. I think they deserve better.

Made In Dagenham tickets