Made in Dagenham, produced by the New Wolsey, playing in Ipswich
- Credit: Archant
Made in Dagenham is a new musical based on the popular film. It combines great music, laughter and drama but, as arts editor Andrew Clarke finds out, director Douglas Rintoul is anxious to root the show in the real world
Made in Dagenham started life as one of the most popular films of 2010. It starred Sally Hawkins as a car seat machinist who leads the fight for equal pay at Ford’s Dagenham car plant in the late 1960s.
For many, the film, co-funded by BBC Films and the UK Film Council, functioned partly as a feelgood nostalgia trip, capturing the look and the sounds of a much-loved bygone era but, for many others, particularly those in Essex, the strike at the heart of the film represents an important part of recent social history.
The film was such a success that it inspired a large-scale West End musical starring Gemma Arterton with a score composed by David Arnold and lyrics by Richard Thomas. The musical was not a direct copy of the film. It followed the spirit of the events in the film while expanding some areas and reducing others.
Now, Made in Dagenham is getting a new lease of life away from the cinema and the West End and is re-connecting with its real-life inspiration thanks to a new regional co-production between The New Wolsey Theatre and The Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch.
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Hornchurch is a mere five miles down the road from the Ford Dagenham plant and for director Douglas Rintoul the subject matter of the musical comes very close to home as his mother worked at the plant during the 1980s and he can remember vividly the continued rumblings of industrial dispute which punctuated his childhood.
Speaking after the successful regional premiere at The Queen’s Theatre, Douglas says that although this new actor-musician version of the show is very much about re-connecting with its roots, it is still a fun, lively night out at the theatre
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The show stars Daniella Bowen, last seen at the New Wolsey as Sarah in Our House. She plays Rita, the fictional focal point for the dispute over equal pay. She gets the bit between her teeth, takes on both a giant American car firm and the TUC and ends up having tea with Labour minister Barbara Castle. Meanwhile, her family are at sixes and sevens, because while she’s out putting the world to rights, there’s no-one at home getting the tea.
It’s a show which gently illustrates both how the world has changed and how much is still the same. For Douglas, it’s this down-to-earth honesty that attracted him to the show.
“I love the story because it is a tale of ordinary people achieving the most extraordinary things. I love the fact that the characters are working class, they share a sense of community and they come together to achieve something which quickly becomes apparent is an historical moment.
“But, above everything, it’s just a really joyous evening at the theatre. It’s life-affirming, it’s very funny, the music’s great, you are left feeling incredibly buoyant, the audience are left feeling really empowered by the end of it. So I felt that with just one show we were ticking a large number of very important boxes.”
He said that as he conceived the show as a actor-musician show, it was an easy choice to ask the New Wolsey to be a producing partner and many of the cast, as well as musical director Ben Goddard, have a long relationship with the Ipswich theatre. Even though it was a co-production, Douglas knew that, emotionally, the regional premiere had to be staged in Hornchurch. This was the first time it had been seen since its West End production, it had been re-worked, re-vamped and it felt right to unveil it to the people who had inspired the story.
“We opened the show at Hornchurch because the theatre is just down the road from Ford Dagenham, so there’s a real feel of the story coming home. I felt I could give it a new lease of life. Also, the other thing was that there has been so much in the press recently about equal pay that it felt like a really resonant issue.
“We are still having huge discussions about why, in some areas, women are still only on 87% of the male rate, so I think it is a very pertinent to be telling this story now. I feel quite strongly that today there are businesses where the workers don’t have rights, where people are campaigning to end zero hours contracts. If you look around, things are still just as bad, in some cases worse, because the unions aren’t strong.
“What I have wanted to do is root it in the real world. Take it away from the glitz of the West End – to scale it back into a more intimate experience. In London, it was in the Adelphi, which is a huge theatre, I wanted to make it more of a personal show,
“They say that the West End production cast a very long shadow but I knew immediately how I wanted to tackle this new version. I didn’t deliberately stand back and think: ‘How am I going to make this production different?’ I knew immediately how I wanted to play it.
“I wanted to focus on the narrative and let that do all the work. It tells a very compelling story with a cast of very engaging characters, so why do you want to throw in lots of extraneous detail which just distracts from the strongest elements of the show? From the very beginning I had a very clear idea how I wanted to tell the story. I wanted to engage the audience, I wanted harness their imagination and let them conjure up this world and have them come on this crusade.”
Douglas says that the drama, the laughter and the music balance each other very well. He also likes the fact that the real strikers were able to attend rehearsals, speak to the actors and influence the way this production developed.
“We had some of the original strikers come into rehearsals and share their thoughts and their memories, and it is quite clear that many of them are still quite angry about what happened. They are still upset that there isn’t full equality between men and women who are doing the same job.”
He says that memories of growing up in the area and discussions with his mother have helped inform the feel and atmosphere of the show. He explained that for both the film and the musical a little artistic licence had been taken with history. Douglas explains that there were two strikes 16 years apart which, for dramatic purposes, had been merged into one event.
“The original strike in the late ‘60s was because the machinists had been reclassified as unskilled. In 1968 that was the issue and they went on strike to be recognised as skilled workers then it turned into a dispute about equal pay. In the end they got equal pay but equal pay as unskilled workers.
“Ford didn’t reclassify them as skilled workers until 1984. They didn’t picket in 1968, they picketed in 1984 and finally after 16 years of campaigning they were finally reclassified as skilled workers. It goes to show that in all that time not much had changed.
“It’s shocking really that it took them that long to get the classification changed because in the late 1960s that was what the original dispute was about and it took them until 1984 to get their original status back.”
He says his mother worked at Ford Dagenham in the mid-to-late 80s and found it very hard because it was such a male-dominated world. “After all that time sadly it hadn’t moved on that much.”
Although, he has worked hard to anchor the setting in a very believable world, he has also made sure that the fun hasn’t been lost along the way. He says that the last thing on his mind was creating a show that could double for a social history lecture or a party political broadcast.
The glitter and glitz may have been replaced but the exuberance and the entertainment value remain. Douglas believes because the show is now very much anchored in the real world, the drama contained within the story now packs a genuine emotional punch.
“I think by making it a much more intimate show, it makes the story much more explosive. It feels much more honest, grittier and the response from our audiences has been much more visceral. It speaks to them in an open, honest and very direct way.
“We have told the story in the most authentic way we can and, because it is honest, the show will travel to other theatres and will play to other audiences because they will recognise the universal truths in the situation. But, we don’t forget that it’s a musical still.
“Because it is an actor-musician show, it feels very much like an ensemble show. The cast play their own instruments, they perform all the scene changes, it’s a collective effort. It has a quite rough and ready feel about it, in a good way, something which the slicker West End show did not.
“The basic injustice of having a man and a woman doing the same job and receiving different rates of pay still provokes a massive sense of injustice and the strength of character that these people displayed to set about getting this changed makes for compelling drama and an entertaining musical. It’s funny, it’s ironic, it’s quirky, full of character and I think it will work better in regional theatre because it is a very English or British subject.
“It’s about a group of working class people coming together to achieve something greater than any one of them could achieve on their own. The cast are brilliant. They are extraordinarily talented and the whole show is delivered with this wonderful sense of joy.”
Made In Dagenham is at The New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich from September 21 to October 15