Last week it was International Women’s Day, a day designed to celebrate the awesomeness of women the world over. Anna and I were a bit late to the party, but we celebrated our fellow women in style with our latest theatre date to Made in Dagenham.
Made in Dagenham is a very British musical, based on the true story of the female machinists at the Ford factory in the 1960s. Slaving away in a boiling hot factory making seat covers every day, the women are outraged when they discover that they have been graded as unskilled workers, below all the men in the factory, and that they are therefore paid a lower wage as they are deemed less valuable. In protest they walk out on strike, causing the whole factory to grind to a halt. Under increasing pressure from their husbands (many of whom work at the factory) and their bosses to go back to work, the women grit their teeth against the hardships they face and upscale their campaign for equal pay with the men in the factory to equal pay for women nationwide, in whatever profession.
As a new musical, it was a real coup for the cast to have a big name, which they do in the form of Gemma Arterton. The darling of the stage after her turn as the Duchess of Malfi at the Sam Wannamaker theatre last year (still wish I’d seen that), she’s certainly a crowd drawer as Rita O’Grady. She in particular struggles to balance the demands of campaigning alongside her husband Eddie and two children. But, refreshingly, she is just part of a strong ensemble cast. That is one of the great things about Made in Dagenham: the strength of the cast as a whole. Everyone has a part to play, and everyone gets their turn on centre stage. The female machinists are consistently reminded that they are only as strong as they are united. Gobby Beryl, vivacious Sandra and dreamer Cass are all delightful in their own way, and defeated idealist Connie, played by Isla Blair, is the driving force pushing Rita to fight for all their dreams. I would love to sit in on a day in the factory with them: the air would be completely blue, but I’m fairly sure my face would ache from laughing. I also felt for Lisa Hopkins, wife of the manager of Ford’s Dagenham branch. A frustrated trophy wife with a Double First from Oxford, she also finds her voice in this story in her own way, and is inspired by the machinists to reassert the independence she lost with marriage.
By contrast, a lot of the men are comical caricatures, and two of the main male figures in the story, Henry Ford and Prime Minister Harold Wilson, are shown as absolute idiots. Ford is a brash, arrogant bad guy from America, rocking up in his sunglasses (fortunately without his shotgun), and trying to crush the women’s spirit. Wilson is hilarious, but completely shown up by the much stronger Barbara Castle, his secretary for employment. It is an awful Catch-22 that, despite her position of power, she cannot do anything for the women without the backing of the TUC, a union made up entirely of men. Of all the men, the best on offer is Eddie, who may not have a way with words, but he is loving and had a heart of gold. But when he tries to point out to Rita that he supports her campaigning, that he never beat her up or forced her to stay at home, that he allowed her to work, she replies – quite rightly – that that’s how it supposed to be. Men like Eddie should be the norm, not the exception.
This is a very funny musical, with a liberal amount of gobbiness and swearing. It made us laugh countless times, and a couple of times I even felt the prickling of tears. The songs are punchy and motivational, and set a bit of a fire under you to get out there and change the world. The cast received a well-deserved standing ovation at the end of the performance, and it was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon for us.
I confess to a (very) guilty TV pleasure, The Only Way Is Essex. Not a million miles from Dagenham, it is ultra-trashy and ridiculous, but brilliant for switching off from real life. One of the latest episodes was set on International Women’s Day, and one of the cast (Gemma Collins, ‘famous’ for surviving only three days in the Australian jungle on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!) threw a party to big up the girls. At her party, it was pointed out that there were a lot of men around, probably to try and up the chances of walking off with a man at the end of the night. This in itself entirely defeats the celebration of women as independent entities in suggesting that their lives, or at least their nights, would not be complete without a man involved. In fact Gemma had also chosen to have topless men waiting on women, supposedly as some kind of feminist point. That, for me, misses the mark. Objectifying men isn’t the way to close the equality gap. Made in Dagenham has a much better take on equality: by the end of the musical you see men and women standing together for equal treatment and equal pay. And this is important because it’s only when we can all be appreciated and respected for who we are, male or female, that we can say that we truly live in an equal world.
Rather like its characters, Made in Dagenham is a diamond in the rough. See it or regret it!Made in Dagenham runs at the Adelphi Theatre until 11th April. Buy tickets here.
P.S. If you’re still not convinced, watch the trailer here!