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.

Interview: Alex Campbell, DAODS Made in Dagenham

The Dartford Amateur Operatic & Dramatic Society was founded in 1906, when three residents decided to form a local operatic society to offset “the perceived lack of facilities for entertainment” in Dartford. Though we no longer have that problem, with a thriving local theatre that attracts some of the UK’s top touring shows, DAODS are still going strong – and proving with each production that they’re more than capable of holding their own alongside the visiting talent.

And later this month DAODS will be back at the Orchard Theatre with their production of Made in Dagenham. They’re one of the first amateur groups in the South East to perform the show, and director Alex Campbell is looking forward to bringing a little bit of Essex to our Dartford shores.

“It’s very exciting to be one of the first groups to do the show in this area,” she says. “It feels so close to home – just across the bridge! – so we know that the people of Dartford will really enjoy it. Within our company, there are many who remember and were directly affected by the events that inspired Made in Dagenham, and we hope it will bring back memories for lots of people.”

The show’s based on the true story of the women who worked in the Ford factory at Dagenham during the late 60s. “After their jobs as machinists were deemed ‘unskilled’ and upon the realisation that they were paid 87% of the wage of their male counterparts, the women went on strike,” explains Alex. “They gained the backing of the Trade Unions, which forced Ford to adopt an equal pay policy. As a direct result, the Equal Pay Act was signed into legislation in 1970 and formed the basis of much of our equal rights policy in this country.”

This particular strike may have ended in victory, but Alex believes women’s rights still have a long way to go: “Although we have come very far, gender inequality is still not resolved in this country and the show really highlights all the work we have left to do. Feminism is certainly having a resurgence at the moment and I think Made in Dagenham is an excellent reminder of how recently things have actually begun to change for women, and in some ways, how much they have yet to change at all.”

The show brings together a cast of over 40 talented local performers. “I am so thrilled by our fantastic cast,” says Alex. “Our leading lady Rita O’Grady is played by Stephanie Trott, who’s previously worked professionally in the West End, and she’s joined by Alex Freeman, who’s played many fantastic roles for DAODS, as her husband Eddie. The two were last seen as Sweeney and Mrs Lovett in our production of Sweeney Todd last year. We also have two brilliant local young people, Joseph and Elouise, who join us to play their children. There is a fantastic mixture of old and new members in the show, with many DAODS leading actors returning to take up principal roles.”

Alex has been a member of DAODS for over 15 years, having joined the society as a member of the youth group at age 9. “Since then it’s been a huge part of my life and has helped me gain skills and experience that have allowed me to pursue a professional career in the theatre world,” she says. “It may sound cliché, but DAODS is really like a huge family and I am so grateful for their encouragement and support over the past few months.

“I’m thrilled to be directing my first Orchard production, having previously directed Hair for the society which was performed at our hall. I’ve always wanted to direct an Orchard show and one of the most exciting things is the huge scale of the production and the potential to create amazing things with a large cast. We are so lucky to have the support of the Orchard staff, who are so incredible at their jobs and have been a great support to the process.”

For anyone inspired to join DAODS, there are some great opportunities ahead over the coming months. “We have many exciting things coming up next, including our Disney revue Dream which will be at Heathfields Hall in July, and then our next Orchard production will be the iconic Singin’ In The Rain in October. As always, we are looking for new members for our group and our next society auditions will be after Dagenham – so do get in touch and join us. You will not regret it!”

Don’t miss DAODS’ Made in Dagenham at the Orchard Theatre from 26th-29th April. And to find out more about DAODS, visit the website.