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A musical like a Ford Cortina

Why “Made in Dagenham” needs more power

Isabel Lloyd | November 6th 2014

Two musicals currently playing in the West End both finish with an unspeaking female character alone on the stage, standing for something important. One is the middle-aged black woman who hovers mutely on the fringes of much of the action in “The Scottsboro Boys”, a witness to the decades-long persecution of nine black teenagers in Alabama. At the end, in a moment of gut-punching power, we see her refuse to give up her seat to a man on a bus and the civil rights movement find its touchpaper. The other is a young white cleaner in a headscarf and pinny, who quietly pours tea and helps with scene changes during “Made in Dagenham”, a brash, upbeat new musical about the 1968 Ford machinists’ strike that opened at the Adelphi last night. Her sign-off is a solo, rather self-consciously silly dance, celebrating—well, what exactly?

The quick answer is the passing of the Equal Pay Act of 1970, which enshrined the right of British women to be paid the same as their male counterparts. But the musical, with book by Richard Bean—the writer of “One Man, Two Guv’nors”—and a score by a composer of film and TV soundtracks, rather fudges the issue. Its closing song—the big, hand-clappy, toe-tappy number that every musical needs to send its audience home satisfied—is built around Gemma Arterton as Rita O’Grady (a fictional conglomeration of several of the women who together halted production at the Dagenham car plant) pleading with members at the TUC’s annual congress to back a motion calling for equal pay. Then Barbara Castle, played with authentic northern steel by Sophie-Louise Dann, strides on for one of those heart-sinking montage moments when an actor steps out of character and begins to recite, with portentous solemnity, a series of Facts; in this case that the Ford women were as vital to the cause of female emancipation as the suffragettes. The under-30s in the audience—like the two girls sitting next to me who knew who Harold Wilson was, but not “whether he really talked like that”—would be forgiven for leaving the theatre thinking that after the conference, the fictional Rita and her co-workers were immediately paid 100% of their male colleagues’ salaries, and that we all lived equally ever after.

The truth is less showbiz. The women went back to work after being awarded 92% of the men’s salaries—despite Arterton's feisty assertion that she will settle for nothing less than parity—and it was in fact Castle’s dogged work on getting the bill through parliament, a process that took a further two years, that achieved the 100% benchmark. Two years of committee meetings would make a pretty dull musical, but it would have been nice to see Castle get a little more of the glory.

Instead the show goes all-out for entertainment. Fistfuls of Richard Bean’s trademark filthy-corny gags, a show-stealing turn by Mark Hadfield—whose Harold Wilson is a pantomime horse with Mike Yarwood up front, Eric Morecambe at the rear, and the Python team holding the reins—a witty, hyperflexible set by Bunny Christie, and Rupert Goold’s predictably slick direction all pull you along in their feel-good wake. But whereas “The Scottsboro Boys” manages to square razzle-dazzle presentation with an authentic howl of outrage, “Made in Dagenham” falls a little too in love with its own plasticky, Carry-On-Car-Making surface to do its subject justice. A bit like the Ford Cortina 1600E that rolls on stage at one point—“designed to last/for at least three years!”—it’s got all the trimmings, but not enough real power.

The Scottsboro Boys Garrick, London, to Feb 21st. Made in Dagenham Adelphi, London, to March 28th

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