REVIEW: Made In Dagenham, Adelphi Theatre ✭✭✭✭

Made In Dagenham at the Adelphi Theatre
Made In Dagenham. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Made in Dagenham
Adelphi Theatre
4 Stars

The suited and booted villain, complete with moustache, has destroyed the magic charm. Cinderella will not go the ball after all. But, then, her fairy godmother gives her strength and she finds it within herself to go, wearing a fabulous new dress. Tentative at first, she falters as the dances begin, but soon, knowing that her friends are behind her, she gains confidence and becomes the belle of the ball. The Prince, distracted by his other duties, realises how close he came to losing the chance to be with Cinderella. He asks for her hand; she accepts. Tears and happiness ensue.

This is not the outline of an updated pantomime, but the essence of what lies at the heart of Made In Dagenham, a new musical directed by Rupert Goold, now playing at the Adelphi Theatre. It’s an adaptation of the 2010 film and stars the gifted and charming Gemma Atherton.

Adaptations are always fraught with danger. Aficionados of the first form of the story, whether that be novel, film, drama or poem, will always have views about whether the adaptation is faithful or sacrilegious. What do you mean Eliza comes back to Higgins at the end of My Fair Lady? What do you mean Shelley Winters’ character dies after the swim and not as the hull is being cut through, rescue seconds away, in The Poseidon Adventure? What do you mean Rapunzel does not die in Into The Woods? And so it goes on.

But, in truth, each adaptation needs to work on its own terms, in its own milieu. Stories and characters change to conform to the demands of the new form, to allow the new form to be as effective as possible. Just as film can tell pages of a story with a single shot or a short, silent scene, so the form of musical theatre can communicate character and story in a myriad of ways – through song, dance, musical interludes, script. How these elements combine dictate the audience response. So it is never necessary to know the original form of a story in order for a new musical to work; it is the musical form that needs to be coherent, understandable and, almost always, brimming with heart.

Made in Dagenham is an archetypal David and Goliath story, set against the background of the sexist world of the 60’s and interweaved with a romance and a domestic rebellion. This particular David might be slaying more than just one brute but that is not really important; this particular David is not trying to change the world (even though that is what happens) merely seeking fairness. Although the events depicted here might have been of tremendous political importance, that importance is not core to Made In Dagenham.

No. Just as Hamlet is not a satire or review of the question of Monarchies, Made In Dagenham is a gentle, sweet and quite delightful story about a plain-speaking woman who momentarily steps into the limelight, almost loses the family she adores, but who, by remaining principled, honest and true, succeeds beyond her wildest dreams and is rewarded by happiness. It is quite simply a modern day fairy tale, no matter how firmly, or vaguely, rooted in fact it is.

And when Made In Dagenham is focussed on the fairy tale, it is completely engaging, very funny, heart-warming and genuinely affecting. And intrinsically British. It runs the whole spectrum from cute giggle to silent, handkerchief-drenching tears; a musical roller-coaster with more highs than lows, with Richard Thomas’ excellent lyrics one of the genuine high points.

Rita is happily married to Eddie, they have two kids and live and work in Dagenham at the Ford Car Manufacturing plant. Ford is restructuring pay levels and, as part of that, intends to treat Rosie and her fellow seat-cover sewing experts as less skilled than men, including Eddie, who do unskilled, rote work. The women refuse to accept the deal, and the ensuing workplace disruption ends up as a vehicle for the case being made in the UK for equal pay for women. The men (politicians, union leaders, site bosses and co-workers) react badly to the women’s claims for equality, and Eddie leaves Rita, taking their children from her. Despite the brutal, sexist world she finds herself in, Rita fights on, eventually convincing the most powerful Union in the country to vote in favour of an equal pay clause. Eddie realises he has been wrong and happiness is restored.

But, for whatever reason, be it the directorial bent of Rupert Goold or the narrative vision of Richard Bean, the adaptor here, the musical does not confine itself to the Cinderella-esque aspects of the story. No. Foolishly, and pointlessly, and, actually, offensively, the story includes interludes with Harold Wilson and Mr Tooley, the US big boss of the Ford car company, which are facile, puerile and counter-productive. They add nothing to the piece, but detract fundamentally from it. They belong in a different show; a tasteless send-up of stereotypes or a political satire.

The presence of these unfathomably stupid sequences means that other material is not present when it could so easily be. For instance, there is no happy duet between Rita and Eddie which sets up what she might lose; there is no solo for the wife of the Dagenham plant manager who inspires Rita to keep to her cause; there is no duet between Connie and Monty, members of the same union who have a long, intimate history; there is no song for the acerbic, foul-mouthed Beryl, a missed opportunity for a possible show-stopper.

Rather than use music to progress understanding of situation or character, the creative team squander time on silly irrelevancies. That this misjudgment does not entirely scupper the entire enterprise speaks volumes about the material which is true to the musical comedy form appropriate for this gentle story and the skill of the cast.

The final number, Stand Up, is a musical delight, but it does make one wonder why composer David Arnold has not produced a more delicious score. Clearly, he does understand the effect key changes, different time signatures, harmonies and modulations can make to a complete score; he just does not choose to use them often. This is not to say that there are not gorgeous melodies and catchy tunes – there absolutely are – but the impression is not that the music was to the forefront in the preparation here. Political parody is never more important than exciting music, a lesson Bean and Goold need to learn.

Still, these failings are not fatal and the central performances are key to this.

Gemma Arterton is a wonderful Rita. She is beautiful, full of warmth and charm and brings a real sense of truth to every moment. Effortlessly, she establishes the sense of the time in which the action occurs and the warm bond she has with her fellow workers. But, equally, you can sense the restlessness about her as she struggles with the entrenched notion that men know what is best for her and her children.

Vocally, she is at her best in the opening number, her duets with Eddie and in the stirring Stand Up! She mostly gets away with the demands of the score; she is an excellent actress who can sing. However, the score would benefit more from an excellent singer who could act. There are several moments when vocal power would have transformed an ordinary sequence into an extraordinary one.

Sophie-Louise Dann demonstrates this when, as minister Barbara Castle, she, to use a technical term, “sings the crap out of” her solo in the second Act. Rightly, she raises the roof.

As Eddie, Adrian Der Gregorian is perfect as the everyday bloke, the hapless Dad, the man who really does love his wife but does not understand her. He gives a warm, touching and sincere portrait of ordinariness. What is extraordinary about him is his voice. He is in excellent form throughout the show, but especially when delivering The Letter and in the duet where he tells Rita they are finished.

Isla Blair is confident, charming and crafty as Connie, the woman who has married her Union and put her career there ahead of everything else in her life. It’s a delightfully delicate turn and provides a real sense of heart to the piece.

Rita’s cohorts are all outstanding: Sophie Stanton’s Beryl (a woman who could outpace Gordon Ramsey when it came to use of the F-word), Heather Craney’s Clare (eight parts Barbara Windsor, two parts Olive from On The Buses; utter joy), Sophie Isaacs’ Sandra (the epitome of a Carry On girl), Naana Agyei-Ampadu (the seamstress who would pilot a plane). They make a grand crew and have excellent support from the ensemble, both female and make. Indeed, the ensemble singing is a true high point throughout.

Naomi Frederick is superlative as Lisa, the bereft, brainy wife of the fastidious and useless Hopkins (Julius D’Silva in splendid form). Her line about the horse her husband has gifted her is the line of the evening. She draws a clear outline of pain and passion, and the moment where she hands Rita the dress before she makes her speech is one of those perfectly simple theatrical moments which stay with you.

David Cardy did what he could with Monty, and his speech on the hospital bed was especially affecting. His material is not nearly as strong as that given to the women, but he made the most of what was provided. René Zagger enjoys himself in a series of roles, attacking each with gusto and care. Scott Garnham gives his all as Buddy Cortina.

Given that the story about the sadisitic teacher, Macer, goes nowhere, and that the way Harold Wilson and the American boss Tooley are used is stupidly wrong, the efforts of Steve Furst (Tooley), Mark Hadfield (Wilson) and Gareth Snook (Macer) add little, if anything, to the overall success of the musical. This is not their fault, they all do what is asked of them. And perhaps it is because they do that well, the damage those scenes do to the overall piece is somewhat diminished. Perhaps. I doubt Americans, or really anybody, will see anything funny in Tooley’s unbearable Act Two opener This Is America. It should be cut and replaced now.

Choreographer Aletta Collins does not make the most of the opportunities for dance and movement that the piece and the score provides. Buddy Cortina’s number, no matter how well sung, does not survive the staging. There is one moment, as a scene transforms into a pub, where a solo dancer (Rachel Spurrell it seemed) embodied the joy and spirit of the Sixties in a dance of happiness – would that Collins had maintained that level of commitment and intensity throughout. With better, more inventive choreography, this would be a much greater piece of entertainment.

Bunny Christie provides an excellent set. There is a permanent factory production line set up which frames most of the action, car seats rolling around a high-up conveyer, constantly reminding everyone about the need for the plant to keep moving – while also making plain that the women and their sewing bring colour to the grey achievements of the men. The two level set for the O’Grady house is sweet, but not novel.

Most unimpressive is Richard Brookner’s sound design. It does nothing to bring clarity to the diction of the singers and often muddies what would otherwise be crystal clear. The balance between orchestra and singer is frequently wrong – unfathomably. This should be sorted with alacrity.

There is a lot to love here, quite a bit to like and a few bits which are just wrong. But the overall impression is good. If the creative team stopped trying to be clever with political satire and kept to the thrust of the story and the beautiful central characters, this would be a great British musical. As it is, the genuine charm and skill of the large cast, led by Arterton and Der Gregorian, ensures loads of laughs, a few tears and a resonant sense of triumph in the final number. It would be a churlish person who did not want to Stand Up for this cast at the end of the evening.

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