Made in Dagenham

After a visit to the Theatre Cafe yesterday, I went to see the evening performance of the new musical Made in Dagenham. Ever since it opened, I have been keen to see the show, partly because Gemma Arterton was the leading lady and also because it tackles a subject which we have closely focused on a lot in Media Studies and I have become really passionate about: feminism and rights for women.

The musical is based on the 2010 film of the same title and the true story of the female workers at the Ford factory in Dagenham in 1968. After being graded as a ‘B’, unskilled, the ladies at the factory are outraged, especially Rita O’Grady and colleague Connie Riley. At a meeting to discuss being raised to a grade ‘C’, skilled, the issue turns to an issue of equal pay, respect for women and gender equality and Rita then becomes the ringleader of a strike.

Gemma Arterton was utterly superb in the role of Rita O’Grady. This is her first role in musical theatre, therefore it was somewhat a surprise to many that she had such a talent for singing as well as acting. I am familiar with Arterton from the BBC television adaption of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, where she gave a strong and emotional performance, as she did in Made in Dagenham. Rita O’Grady is an extremely loveable character. She is loving, kind, stubborn and a real fighter, yet occasionally does come across as naive, as you would probably expect in a society where women are repressed. Rita is not your typical heroine: feisty, outspoken and tomboy-ish, but is simply an average, working-class woman and housewife, however, the strength, courage and power-of-speech she discovers throughout the story makes her a heroine, as she quite literally changed the world and bettered society for women. Despite it being Arterton’s West End musical debut, she did not hold back or show any lacking in confidence at all during the performance as you may sometimes expect. Every time she was on stage, her presence was deeply felt even when she was just there as ‘one of the factory girls’. One particular scene where she really demonstrated a highly-emotional presence was when her husband Eddie was performing the song The Letter, having left her and taking their children with him, singing the words of a letter he had left for when she returned home. Whilst Eddie was singing, Rita was sat at the kitchen table in the background reading the letter, not speaking at all but was reacting to every word in the letter, making that scene particularly emotional. The final scene where Rita made her speech was extremely empowering and inevitably led into a song, the number Stand Up. That scene was so heartfelt and it really made me feel something like no musical has ever made me feel anything before to the extent that I was really wanting to stand up and raise my hand at her sung words “stand up, stand up, if you’re with me then put your hand up” but restrained myself for the sake of the people behind me. Arterton’s take on Rita O’Grady was in a class of its own and made the character loveable, memorable and most of all, incredibly inspiring.

All of the factory girls gave exceptional performances and made their characters recognisable and equal, echoing the message of gender equality that the show conveys. They were all prominent in their own ways and deserve a lot of praise and recognition. To mention just a few, Isla Blair played Connie Riley, the character who was a part of the grading debates yet was not listened to, the cause of the action that was taken for women’s voices to be heard. She played the character as ruthless, headstrong and proud right up to the moment she sadly died. Sophie Isaacs played Sandra, the youngest of the factory girls who was very naive and quite easily led. Her voice was outstanding and the character played with a lot of added fun. Naana Agyei-Ampadu played Cass, the only black woman who worked in the factory but had dreams of becoming an aeroplane pilot before she turns thirty-five. Cass is quite a comical character who does not let the colour of her skin differentiate her from the other girls and who is determined to remain positive and reach her dream.

Mark Hadfield and Sophie-Louise Dann played Harold Wilson and Barbara Castle respectively. Harold Wilson was a very comical character and Hadfield ensured this every bit of his acting, dancing and singing, showing little sign of seriousness. I believe this was a bit of fun being poked at politics, particularly the Labour Party. It was refreshing to see a strong female character in the show from the beginning, and this was Barbara Castle played by Sophie-Louise Dann. She was a no-nonsense character who even frightened the men and put them in their place, a brilliant contrast to the repression of the female workers in the factory. Her big number In An Ideal World was brilliantly performed with the character’s attitude and a bit of humour which you would not expect from this particular character, however, it all slotted together well and made that performance one of the most memorable and best parts of the show.

All-in-all, to anyone who happens to be in London before Saturday night, I strongly urge you to go and see Made in Dagenham before its closure because it really is a masterpiece. It is a comedy, so you might expect it to be pretty laid-back and not serious but it really isn’t, its message and the issues it presents are still relevant in society today and I guarantee every woman that sees it will walk out feeling empowered. There are parts of it that make you laugh, make you so, so angry, make you cry but ultimately, the message of female empowerment is the result of all these emotions as it was for these women that fought for our rights for our voices to be heard. It truly is one of the best musicals I have seen in a while, which leads to my confusion over it’s unpopularity and lack of success. The songs are catchy, with some of my favourites being This is What We Want, Sorry I Love You, Everybody Out and Stand Up, the characters are relatable, the acting sublime and the whole atmosphere perfect for a night out.

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