Review: Made in Dagenham at the Orchard Theatre

Made in Dagenham is based on the true story of the Ford sewing machinists’ strike of 1968, which became key to the passing of the Equal Pay Act two years later. Not surprisingly given the subject matter, it’s a feel-good show with some rousing musical numbers and a finale that simultaneously reminds us how far we’ve come and unashamedly commands us to get on our feet and face up to the challenges still ahead.

The Dartford Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society (DAODS) are one of the first amateur groups in the South East to get the rights to perform Made in Dagenham, which closed in the West End in 2015 after a well-received but relatively short run starring Gemma Arterton. And they’ve proved themselves more than worthy of the honour by producing another excellent show, with director Alex Campbell making her Orchard directorial debut in swinging 60s style.

Photo credit: Rob Hooker

The story follows Rita O’Grady (Stephanie Trott), a Ford machinist who finds herself the unwitting leader of the strike after a dispute over pay scales turns into something much bigger. Facing off against the male-dominated unions, the might of Ford – represented by one very unpleasant American – and the disapproval of her husband Eddie (Alex Freeman), Rita and her girls take their struggle all the way to the top, rubbing shoulders with prime minister Harold Wilson (John Woodley) and Employment Secretary Barbara Castle (Julia Bull) on their way to winning over the TUC conference with an impassioned plea for equality.

Let’s be clear about one thing: this is not a serious or, I suspect, hugely accurate depiction of the events surrounding the strike. Nor is it particularly balanced – the opening number says it all: “If you want something done, ask a busy woman… cos you’re wasting your time asking a man.” Later, when he forgets their 10th wedding anniversary, Eddie offers as an explanation: “I’m just a man with a foolish brain.” The show at times tiptoes very close to the line between cheering for women and putting down men, but is always good humoured enough to pull it back at the last minute.

Leading lady Stephanie Trott is an experienced musical theatre performer, and it shows; she’s perfectly at ease and totally genuine both as the bubbly wife, mother and friend, and as the feisty activist – we could easily have been watching her on a West End stage. Alex Freeman, a DAODS veteran of over 10 years, offers great support as husband Eddie, really coming into his own in Act 2 with a heartfelt rendition of The Letter. And there are great – if surreal – comic performances from John Woodley as Harold Wilson, unflatteringly portrayed as a sort of man-child who’s terrified of women (and indeed any kind of responsibility) and Alex Tyrrell, who’s brilliantly bitchy as the cowboy American boss flown in to put down the revolt. Most importantly for a show that’s about solidarity, the whole cast has great chemistry and the big ensemble numbers are real highlights in an already brilliant show.

From the moment the curtain rises, there’s no doubt what era we’re in; the set and costumes are right on the money and transport us instantly to the swinging 60s. My only minor gripe about the production is that there are occasional sound issues; in the factory scenes the background chatter becomes slightly overpowering, and a few of the lyrics get lost when the band’s in full swing.

Made in Dagenham is a slightly bonkers little show in many ways, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The show has some catchy tunes and a cheeky, self-deprecating sense of humour, and it makes us realise how lucky we are to have had battles like this fought for us long before we were even born, even as we understand there’s still work to do. Best of all: the show may have been made in Dagenham – but DAODS was made in Dartford, and they’ve done us proud.

Made in Dagenham is at the Orchard Theatre until 29th April.

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