I just made it! The musical Made in Dagenham closed on Saturday after a run of just six months. Those behind the show blame the economics of mounting a new musical. I’ve searched on line for whispers as to whether the incongruity of a West End musical about feminism might also be a factor in the show’s brief outing, though I have not as yet detected any evidential signs this is the case.
It was wanting to see how a politically transformative event in the history of feminism (the 1968 strike by women workers at the Ford factory in Dagenham) would be treated in a popular, musical form that hastened my journey down to London to catch the show before it closed. The story of the women’s strike has already been made into a successful film starring Sally Hawkins in the lead role of reluctant activist, Rita. But it seemed to me that turning the film into a musical presented something of a challenge – how, for instance, to come up with catchy lyrics and compose memorable numbers around striking for pay! In point of fact, while not all the songs achieve that unforgettable quality, some certainly succeed in having you humming them long after the event. Into that category fall: the show’s signature tune ‘Made in Dagenham’; the musical’s opening number ‘Busy Woman’ (women’s dual role of paid worker and unpaid housewife/mother visually amplified in the rendition of the song through the scenic design of a domestic interior constructed out of the mechanical parts of the factory and in which Rita, joined by a chorus of factory women for vocal back-up, furiously juggles to keep everyone and everything afloat); and the finale number, ‘Stand Up’, which I’ll come back to.
If the songs were something of a challenge, on the other hand the chorus-line tradition of the musical was a gift to representing the women (and men) on the Ford assembly line. The chorus of women machinists overturned the convention of the ensemble occupying the supporting role: representative of a collective of women acting in solidarity with each other they were in effect the main protagonist. And in terms of the brilliant stage design, what was especially haunting was the constant repeat of a line of suspended car chairs and/or their shadows traversing the stage – on the one hand a reminder of the women’s job sewing the leatherette for the seats, on another, evincing the repetitive strain of Fordist labour.
Although it was the chorus of women whose energies held the musical together, that’s not to say there wasn’t a female lead. Gemma Arterton took the role of Rita. Swapping Bond girl glamour for the factory floor, this was Aterton’s first professional singing role and while accomplished on that front, vocally the affective swell of the most up-beat numbers relied heavily on the outstanding voice of ensemble member, Emma Lindars. Clearly, given that Lindars is a larger woman than the ‘ideal’ feminine type, the show’s feminist credentials did not stretch to upending the convention of having a glamorous star as the female lead. Arterton does, however, deserve much credit for deploying her celebrity status to the show’s spin-off feminist activism (the equal pay campaign ‘Mind the Gap’ and support for this year’s International Women’s Day).
While the cast in general were clearly giving the show their all and the musical offered several delightfully mischievous cameos featuring Harold Wilson (Mark Hadfield) and Barbara Castle (Sophie-Louise Dann) – the latter playing a significant role in the pay negotiations – at times the performative energies failed to communicate. I kept feeling as though the show would come across much better if performed in pubs and clubs than in a hierarchically organised, West End theatre. I felt this particularly in the sequence which portrayed the workers at leisure being ‘entertained’ by a sexist, male comedian. The sexism which is challenged by the women (the comedian gets heckled off and one of the women is urged to take the mike instead) did in a way hit the mark. But what it needed for this moment to really work was for all of us, cast and audience, to be heckling. Similarly, when the big, corporate, American boss flies over from the States to sort the women out, there was a slow response from the audience to booing ‘America’ off the capitalist stage. As an audience we did get there, but how much more participatory this might have been, I kept thinking, in a different space and with a different (non-West End) audience.
All of that said, I was more than ready to forgive these various shortcomings (including the acoustic difficulties of hearing all the words of the songs) given the show’s ending. The closure of the musical revolves around Rita having to speak at the TUC conference on behalf of all the women. Rita the reluctant activist is also the unwilling public speaker. At a lectern, facing the theatre audience and with a fictional audience of all-male, TUC representatives behind her, she struggles to find her voice and words (her script, written by sister campaigner, Connie, who has died from breast cancer, has been torn up by the American boss). Finding her public speaking voice she breaks into song: ‘Stand Up’ for women’s rights is the message. And yes, the audience did rise to its feet. So for all my musings about how well this show might perform its political agenda in ‘alternative’ venues, this was an energising and exceptional moment – the utopian gesture of a West End audience standing up for women’s rights is what made this a musical to remember.