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Made In Dagenham

Last night Stratford Musical Theatre Company took to the stage at the PlayHouse in Stratford-upon-Avon with their latest production, Made In Dagenham; a brave and equally important undertaking during the times of ‘unrest’ and equality issues that we still find ourselves in, around the world today.

Made In Dagenham is a musical based on a film that was inspired by true events at the Ford Dagenham factory, events surrounding the (still relevant!) equality struggle between women and their remunerative male counterparts. Director, Richard Sandle-Keynes, chose to set the production on the floor of the PlayHouse in a thrust-stage set-up; yet another brave choice seeing as the venue is host to a high-dome auditorium and this can sometimes cause the more intimate scenes of a show to become lost. Sandle-Keynes obviously had great faith in his cast to overcome this obstacle, and his faith was well-placed.

The show opened with energetic numbers, ‘Busy Woman’, showing a glimpse into the hectic (work and family) life of Rita O’Grady, the woman who will lead the charge in the tasks ahead, and her female colleagues. Swiftly followed by ‘Made In Dagenham’, the rather egotistical male response to the above, against the backdrop of the Ford factory floor where they all work. Overall, men were outnumbered by women in this production by about 2:1, though, for lack of a better phrase, they certainly ‘held their own’ throughout and were a vocal force to be reckoned with, especially when singing as a group.

The entire company bought obvious talent to the table, but it was the dramatic and vocal talents of Katie Merrygold, Georgie Wood, Mark Ewins, Phil Harper, Simon Patterson and Toby Newton that certainly made them stand out from the masses.

Louise Sinclair’s Beryl was the definition of perfectly timed brilliance; her comedic cussing was on point and a thrill to witness. Then, there was Bex Lou Walton’s Clare; a combination of comical genius that was portrayed in every minute she was on stage, whether she was in the ‘main frame’ or not, and vocal ability that wowed all who heard it. Her rendition of, ‘Wossname’ was the perfect example of her skills as both an actor and singer.

Swiftly after these opening songs, it becomes apparent that the women of the factory are told their grading at work is to be reduced from ‘skilled’ to ‘unskilled’, meaning they would be taking a pay-cut. ‘This Is What We Want’ provides a fierce and thrilling example of the determination that these courageous individuals wanted to show to dispute this notion. Everyone involved in this number vocally and visually uplifted the audience, especially Clare Sykes in her role as Sandra Beaumont; her high riffs and choral power were a sensation.

Union representatives Connie and Monty, played by Jo Peterson and Dave Goodwin respectively, are called upon to take these matters further on behalf of their workers. Unfortunately, Monty falls prey to peer pressure from his male colleagues, but Connie quickly steps into action and the audience were witness to a personified storm brewing.

Eventually, other areas of the story begin to unfold too, there’s trouble within the government; a depressing economy and rife industrial unrest. Prime Minister Harold Wilson, played hilariously by Chris McCoy, appoints Barbara Castle, a role undertaken expertly by Judi Walton, as Secretary of State for Talking to the Unions; a move he hopes will quell many troubles he faces all at once, how wrong he turns out to be.

Meanwhile, back in Dagenham, Rita faces her first confrontation when questioning a teacher at school over the caning of her son, here she meets Lisa, who is there for the same reason. Ironically, Lisa, is married to the Ford factory’s General Manager, Mr Hopkins, played jovially by Tony Homer, though it becomes apparent that their views on most things are somewhat different. The role of Lisa was adeptly portrayed by Jo Pearson, and is definitely worthy of note as she exuded the quiet but immense significance of her role in being a main driving force in Rita’s journey.

The rest of the first act saw an ascension in pace, energy and enthusiasm, right up until its peak where the Ford Dagenham girls officially go out on strike because Rita’s request for equal-pay has quite literally been laughed at. ‘Everybody Out’, the half’s finale, was a showstopper that was so uplifting to the audience, they all left the auditorium for the interval quite disappointed that the show was taking a break!

Act Two opens showing the domino effect the strike is having upon reaching its headquarters overseas. Paul Stacey brings energy, ego and extensive vibrance to his character, Mr. Tooley, who leads in, ‘This Is America’, a number that is, quite frankly, a sight to behold and coupled with ‘Cortina’ later in the act, shows off the choreography talents of Julie Bedlow-Howard alongside the dance capabilities of the entire company.

This second act also brings with it the more intimate storylines of the show; the passing of Connie, Rita and (her husband) Eddie’s troubles at home and the knock-on effect on their children, depicted by Artie Dobson and Seren Welsh; young and talented actors in the making!

Scenes of this nature amidst an otherwise fast-paced show have the ability to get easily lost, but that simply wasn’t the case here; during these quieter parts, there wasn’t a sound to be heard throughout the entire audience as they were hanging on to every word and living out these emotional moments with the cast. Sam Flynn as Eddie O’Grady was a constant strongpoint across the entire show, but his rendition of ‘The Letter’ was transcendent to say the least; his vocals and obvious emotion in this particular song were the kind that gave goose bumps to all in witness.

It’s not long, however, before the vivacity is returned and the show reaches its climax; it’s time for Rita to give her speech about equal-pay at the TUC Conference. Karen Welsh’s Rita O’Grady has been a centrepiece from the first moment, it is here however, that we see her brilliance peak to a whole new level. ‘Stand Up’, the penultimate number, is sung and spoken; both of which are crucial to the message it is trying to portray, and the actor did not disappoint. Her obvious connection with the words and their meaning paved the way for every member of the audience to rise to their feet and ‘stand up’ with the company in this pinnacle moment; each urging the male characters on stage to do the same in support of their female counterparts, resulting in overwhelming emotion when they finally did. This number needed strength, consistency, poise, talent and know-how; Karen Welsh bought it all.

The audience did not return to their seats but stayed as they were to give a deserved standing ovation to the company throughout their bows and the finale number.

A show of this excellence cannot achieve such status without many people working hard off stage as well as on. The direction of Richard Sandle-Keynes shone through across the board, his awareness of the show and its meaning bought a profound depth to the stage. The music, under the expert guidance of Maddy Evans was key to the telling of the story and the emotion along with it. The technical crew led by Lewis McMillan, with Dan Outhwaite and Amy Pinfold in support, faced challenges with radio-mics sometimes not working, (a curse that is rife in amateur productions, though the cast and crew dealt with it very well!), but overall gave the notorious ‘magic of theatre’, especially with the lighting design. The set and props were simplistic but highly effective throughout. Finally, the costume put together by Claire Dempsey added real authenticity to the production; crucial when telling such a gripping tale.

There was an important line repeatedly throughout the show, “Nothing changes if it isn’t challenged.” Words that will (and should!) be carried across generations. Stratford Musical Theatre Company certainly set themselves a challenge with this production, but the final product was flawless; specifically, no change necessary!

Review by Lee Holt, Pulse Productions

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