West End musicals don’t normally have a real sense of working class life and struggle, socialist politics or a determined battle against oppression.
The new musical Made in Dagenham has all this and much more, with great music and a simply wicked sense of humour.
The set design is brilliant as the stage is transformed into a production line, picket line, parliament and then the TUC conference.
The musical takes the film of the same name as its starting point—but the script, music and songs were written specially for it.
It tells the story of the 1968 Ford Dagenham strike, when 187 women machinists in the giant east London car plant walked out for pay regrading.
It’s a famous battle that became about equal pay, paving the way for the 1970 Equal Pay Act. The musical is both funnier and politically sharper than the film.
Well known screen actress Gemma Arterton gives a stunning performance in her first ever singing role as fictional strike leader Rita O’Grady. And the whole cast are on fantastic form.
I suspect that hundreds of theatre?goers haven’t often cheered to the rafters as the song “Everybody Out” belts from a stage transformed into a picket line.
Or when Rita’s powerful speech to women workers in Ford’s Halewood plant on Merseyside, which is transformed into a brilliant song, successfully pulls them out in solidarity.
Alongside the sharp politics on class, race and fighting women’s oppression, the show is hilarious.
Labour politicians of the day, from prime minster Harold Wilson to employment secretary Barbara Castle, are the butt of the jokes just as much as the trade union bureaucrats and Ford bosses.
Every mention of “management” from a character (and they are frequent!) brings an echo of “Bastards!” from the chorus line.
And the show ends with the rousing anthem “Stand Up”—a call to change the world through working class people uniting and fighting.
Arterton says the characters in the show are “working class, full of beans, funny and witty”.
Composer David Arnold adds, “We’re looking at the past with a view to the future and the present”.
That’s important. Arterton underlines that for one thing the battle for equal pay is still far from won. “It may have passed into law, but it’s still not in the workplace,” she says.
Director Rupert Goold sums up the musical simply, “I hope audiences will leave the theatre invigorated by the issues raised, by the message of solidarity!”
Not bad for a hugely enjoyable evening out, whether with family and friends or a works or union branch outing in the run up to Christmas.
There are likely to be few better around this autumn.
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