Given that musicals as a genre leave me cold I should, perhaps, have gone with my gut feeling and given this a miss; but the names of Richard Bean, who wrote the book, and Gemma Arterton, in the lead role, attracted me against my usual inclinations. I’m afraid I have to report that Arterton, who had impressed in The Master Builder
and The Duchess of Malfi
, duly provided mediocre singing for a mediocre score but was given very little opportunity to display her acting talents. Which brings us to Bean who, likewise, was given scant opportunity to shine as his contribution was relegated almost to short bursts of linking dialogue between formulaic, overblown musical numbers. There was the odd flash of the slick Bean wit – I particularly liked ‘I’m not a Marxist or a Leninist; I’m a machinist’ – but it wasn’t enough for me and I spent most of the 130 minutes praying: please let this song be over soon so we can get back to the interesting bits. I say 'for me' to emphasise the possibility that for people who like musicals these songs might be precisely the kind of thing they like. The pedigree is good, with lyrics by Richard Thomas, but all these songs did for me is make me wonder if I’d have liked Jerry Springer – the Opera
as much if I’d seen it on stage instead of just on dvd.
The piece, for those who might not know, deals with the equal pay demands of women at the Ford motor company in the late 1960s – demands which began in Dagenham and are considered hugely important in the progress towards gender equality in the workplace. The trouble is, I thought the story was told in a worryingly simplistic and over-romanticised way. Perhaps I’m being too serious about a piece that, on one level, sets out to be a feelgood musical but I thought the whole presentation smothered any chance of getting a deeper message through. The concentration on the fictional Everywoman character of Rita O’Grady (Arterton) was probably a necessary device but is loaded with too many implausible developments – striking up an unlikely alliance with the boss’s wife, being invited to Whitehall (and told to bring any of her mates who wanted to come!) by Barbara Castle (Sophie Louise Dann) and extemporising at the TUC conference after the boss of Ford USA has – in person if you please – destroyed her speech notes. In fact I thought the best serious point in the production was made by the silent character of the cleaning woman who is on stage before the curtain goes up and appears in the background of several scenes – most notably when Barbara Castle has the Dagenham women in her office and offers everyone except the cleaning woman a sherry (I know, I know: you wouldn’t offer an on-duty cleaner a drink; but what was she doing in the office at all if it wasn’t to make the point that many workers are still left unfairly treated?).
Perhaps the best illustration of how the serious messages are buried is the fact that the show is stolen (for me but also, judging by the audience reactions, for many others) by Castle and, especially, Harold Wilson (Mark Hadfield) presented as caricatures of almost Spitting Image
grotesqueness and goofing about for all they’re worth. A caricature too far was Tooley (Steve Furst)
a pantomime villain of an American business leader so exaggerated that it’s hard to take the role he represents (or the message behind it) seriously at all.
The set and props are impressive and the quick scene changes very slick. Indeed the whole production is efficiently managed in a way that I imagine – not having seen any - to be a feature of big musicals. Unfortunately it is, in places, rather meretricious – sometimes disturbingly so. For example, I understand (and indeed applaud) the fact that they have accurately portrayed a period in which many women would have worn their hemlines very high and new cars would have been promoted with dolly birds draped across their bonnets. But why, other than for gratuitous titillation, was the Tooley
character introduced to us backed by a retinue of young women dressed in military fatigues on the top, bare midriffs, and ripped or fishnet tights below? Even more problematic for me, though, was the closing number Stand Up
– an exceedingly dull anthem in the course of which Arterton is clearly inviting the audience to put their hands in the air, clap rhythmically and, well, stand up. Even if I’d liked the song I’m sure I’d have baulked at according a performance a standing ovation because cast members instructed me to do so.
While I’ve certainly seen worse than Made in Dagenham
I’d hesitate to recommend it though, to paraphrase one of my favourite sayings, those who enjoy this kind of thing may find this the kind of thing they enjoy. I can’t find any closing date so there should be plenty of opportunity to catch it. The official Leicester Square booth usually has reduced price tickets and, I was told, £25 front row day seats (not bad, but rather short on leg room) are usually fairly easy to come by on Monday to Wednesday but might sell out as soon as the box office opens later in the week.http://www.madeindagenhamthemusical.com/