‘Made in Dagenham': Theater Review

Made in Dagenham Approved Art - H 2014
Alex James

Made in Dagenham Approved Art - H 2014

Mostly bouncy, rousing fun that honors the original film's spirit, despite a draggy second half

Gemma Arterton stars as a factory worker striking for equal pay in this latest screen-to-stage adaptation, premiering in London's West End

The 2010 seriocomedy Made in Dagenham fit so snugly into a certain template for British films — what with its feisty working-class underdogs, left-leaning, issues-driven script and stalwart acting ensemble, led by Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins and Rosamund Pike — that it's a surprise it did such moderate business. The release earned only $12.4 million worldwide, nearly half of that on its home turf. Maybe it was a sleeper on auxiliary platforms, but that figure rather undermines the marketing claim for the new musical that it's based on a "hit" film.

This stage version, starring Gemma Arterton (Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters) and directed by Rupert Goold (who staged the recent American Psycho musical), is mostly bouncy, rousing fun, despite a draggy second half. It honors the original's spirit while spicing the mix with a generous dollop of seasonally-appropriate Christmas-panto cheek. However, it will be interesting to see if the show can succeed where so many other recent film-to-stage transfers, some based on far better-known properties, have failed.

While it's essentially fiction, the story is inspired, like the source material, by a real industrial action in the late 1960s, instigated by the female workers at Ford's Dagenham car plant. It offers a lightly feminist parable that's crowd-pleasing but not polemical enough to frighten off any horses. The opening song, "Busy Woman," celebrates working ladies' ability to multitask as it introduces heroine Rita O'Grady (Arterton, adding extra brassiness to a role originated by a more fragile Hawkins), machinist, mother of two and wife of fellow-Ford worker Eddie (Adrian Der Gregorian).

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At the plant where Rita and her colleagues stitch together the leather and fabric pieces for the car interiors, the women are informed by shop steward Connie (Isla Blair) and her union-rep superior Monty (David Cardy) that they will henceforth be considered "unskilled" labor. They will therefore be paid less than men elsewhere on the line who do little more than lump bits of metal from one place to another. Disgruntled by this news as well as the management's dismissive attitude, the women, led by an increasingly confident Rita, go out on strike.

The industrial action has far-reaching consequences, not just for Rita, whose relationship with Eddie and the kids starts to feel the strain of her hours away from home, but right up to the top levels of government. Prime Minister Harold Wilson (Mark Hadfield, wryly amusing even if his Huddersfield accent wobbled towards Moscow on opening night) can't afford to sour relations with such a major American manufacturer, and has to play a careful game with the unions that support his Labour Party.

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The PM appoints Barbara Castle (Sophie-Louise Dann, whose clarion rendition of "In an Ideal World" represents one of the night's big show-stoppers) as minister in charge of sorting out the dispute. One of the show's comic highlights is the vaudevillian banter between these two and their minions. Their chorused refrain about the red-headed Castle — "Fiery, like her hair" — is hilarious the first three times it's repeated. But oddly, not the fourth.

Perhaps the problem is that the last time the crack comes round after intermission, the air seems to have slipped out of the balloon, despite a gangbusters second-act opening number featuring Steve Furst as the American Ford executive airlifted in to bully the workers into submission. In fact, my favorite rhyme out of all the good work done by lyricist Richard Thomas for the show has Furst bragging: "We've got Hollywood and Vegas too; You've got Thames TV and Whipsnade Zoo."

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On balance, Thomas' snarky lyrics are stronger than composer David Arnold's tunes, which are pleasant enough at the time but don't linger long. Goold's direction is sturdy for the most part, and perhaps it's a fault of the book by Richard Bean (One Man, Two Guvnors) that some flattening occurs in the second act, when great chunks of time are taken up with the characters mooching about as the strike grinds on. And yet when a fairly major character unexpectedly dies, the pathos is pretty insubstantial.

At least Bunny Christie's ingenious set, with flats that look like huge blow-up versions of a flat-packed toy model set, is a consistent delight throughout, deploying lighting and projections that recall her work on The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

In the lead, Arterton is charismatic, although her singing voice is merely capable rather than outstanding. It becomes noticeable that she needs bolstering from the ensemble to punch up the emotional and musical notes in her big numbers, usually with an assist from Emma Lindars' capacious lung power. But the rest of the cast is solid, with the supporting characters substantially reconfigured from the film, creating vivid new roles for Sophie Stanton as the swearing cynic Beryl, for example, and boosting the part of the factory-owner's wife Lisa (Pike's role in the film, played here by Naomi Frederick) to make her input more substantial and score points about sexism across the classes.

That said, the grappling with sexual politics is strictly beginners-level stuff, to the point where it starts to get annoying that more attention is paid to which dress Rita will wear when she addresses the Trades Union Congress at the climax than what she has to say about wage equality. And no, projecting photographic images of assorted, unnamed real women from around the world against the backdrop during the final number doesn't fix that shortcoming.

Cast: Gemma Arterton, Adrian Der Gregorian, Sophie-Louise Dann, Isla Blair, David Cardy, Heather Craney, Julius D'Silva, Naomi Frederick, Steve Furst, Mark Hadfield, Sophie Isaacs, Sophie Stanton, Naana Agyei-Ampadu
Director: Rupert Goold
Book: Richard Bean, based on a screenplay by William Ivory
Music: David Arnold
Lyrics: Richard Thomas
Set and costume designer: Bunny Christie
Lighting designer: Jon Clark
Sound designer: Richard Brooker
Choreographer: Aletta Collins
Presented by Stage Entertainment, in association with Glass Half Full Productions, Just for Laughs Theatricals, Paula Marie Black