Made in Dagenham

Book by Richard Bean, music by David Arnold, lyrics by Richard Thomas
Adelphi Theatre
From

Gemma Arterton Credit: Manuel Harlan
Gemma Arterton and the Cast Credit: Manuel Harlan
The Cast of Made in Dagenham Credit: Manuel Harlan

In advance, Made in Dagenham apparently had all of the credentials of the perfect show. The only obvious risk was to fall short of stratospheric expectations. Pleasingly, the creative team has done the necessary, delivering the best musical of the year.

The starting point is an intelligent, feel-good British movie with strong social and political values underpinning it.

This has been garnished with a creative team led by Rupert Goold and Richard Bean, respectively quite possibly the best director and playwright currently working in London. Jerry Springer: The Opera lyricist Richard Thomas and film and TV composer David Arnold are no slouches either.

To put icing on this rich cake, the producers have tempted one of the biggest young British movie stars, Gemma Arterton, to lead the cast.

There is much to commend, but the greatest strength of this piece lies in its ability to use what is generally a frothy form to deliver a powerful message (with Bean-branded humour).

Made in Dagenham tells the story of a group of ordinary women working at Ford's Dagenham motor plant who collectively brought the country to its knees in 1968.

Ironically, the London opening took place one day after Equal Pay Day, which almost 50 years on highlights the fact that British men are still paid about 20% more than their female counterparts.

What starts as a minor turf war about uneven grading soon moves into a battle with the bosses for equal pay, involving the big bad wolf from across the Atlantic, making a big statement for global hegemony in “This is America”, which may not endear the writers to our friends over there.

From initial grumbles, the Everywoman figurehead, Miss Arterton as Rita O'Grady, enters into a dialogue that takes her from the shop floor to Westminster meetings with Secretary of State for Employment Barbara Castle and even Prime Minister Harold Wilson before a final rousing speech at the TUC in Eastbourne.

That speech is the actress's high point in a triumphant evening, developing into the memorable "Stand Up" and an inevitable standing ovation from the starriest opening night audience in months. Even better, the curtain call was joined by a trio of the original Ford women, guaranteeing that there will have been few dry eyes in the house.

While the star will deservedly get most of the plaudits, there is strong support with Adrian Der Gregorian playing husband Eddie sympathetically, Mark Hadfield hilarious as Harold Wilson and Sophie-Louise Dann a suitably ironclad but at times unexpectedly warm Barbara Castle.

The hope was that Made in Dagenham would combine the best attributes of Enron, Great Britain, One Man, Two Guvnors and Jerry Springer: The Opera. That is pretty much what it does, with a stream of catchy songs added in for good measure, starting early with “Busy Woman” and the oft-repeated title song.

This show is so good that it must surely sweep the awards board and even raise the tantalising prospect that Richard Bean might just win both best play (Great Britain) and best musical awards in the same year. Amusingly, he may just lose out to his own director since Rupert Goold was the man behind the best of the competition, King Charles III.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher