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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Made In Dagenham
Adelphi Theatre  Autumn 2014 - Spring 2015

There's nothing wrong with this new musical that some good songs couldn't cure. Oh, and maybe some good dance numbers. 

The by-the-numbers plot and cardboard characters are no worse than in most musicals, and besides we're stuck with them, the musical being based on the popular 2010 film of the same name (which itself played like a remake of the 1979 Norma Rae). 

Film and musical tell the fictionalised story of an actual strike at Ford's Dagenham plant in 1968, when the women who sewed car seat covers rebelled at being downgraded to unskilled status and wound up inspiring legislation promising women equal pay to men. 

Such a story demands certain stock elements, and book writer Richard Bean was as hog-tied as the filmmakers. If you're going to tell this story you have to invent a heroine, preferably an ordinary housewife and line worker who is pushed into being spokeswoman and is politicised as she goes along. She has to become so immersed in the struggle that she neglects husband and children, threatening her marriage. 

There will be grumbling among the men, and a waverer among the women, and an inspirational union veteran, and dastardly doings by the bosses, and just-in-time support from unexpected places (here, a boss's wife and Employment Minister Barbara Castle), and the big make-or-break speech by the heroine that wins the day and brings her wavering husband back to her side. 

The formula is inescapable – Norma Rae touched all those bases in an American textile mill, the film of Made In Dagenham followed the same outline, and Richard Bean's major contribution appears to be inserting some mordant humour, such as portraying Prime Minister Harold Wilson as a burlesque Jewish comedian and the troubleshooter from Ford's Michigan office as a Texas cowboy (The latter joke works, adding some comic energy to the show; the former leaves a sour taste in the mouth). 

The songs – lyrics by Richard Thomas (Jerry Springer The Opera), music by David Arnold (lots of James Bond films) – all come in the right places. There's a 'we hate our jobs but are proud of them too' number for the workers, a love song for husband and wife, a rousing strike-calling number to end the first act, a 'I can't keep this up much longer' lament for the husband, an 'Is it worth it?' moment for the heroine and a rousing 'join the struggle' finale. 

The problem is that they are none of them particularly good. You can spot the moments that are supposed to stop the show, and they don't. 

The only song that has any originality, and the only number that generates real theatrical energy, is what I suspect was originally meant to be a comic throwaway, as the flag-waving American cowboy brashly catalogues everything great about America and bad about Britain ('If it wasn't for us you'd be speaking German'). 

It's fun, it's dynamic, it has some of the irresistibly unapologetic bad taste of Jerry Springer or The Book of Mormon – it has to be lyricist Richard Thomas's proudest moment in the show – and performer Steve Furst rightly grabs that moment and doesn't let go, finally giving us the show-stopper we've been hungering for. 

Gemma Arterton is perky as the heroine and attractive enough that we go along with her moments of self-doubt even when the songs expressing them are weak. 

Adrian Der Gregorian is as invisible as anyone would inevitably be in the thankless role of the husband, but Sophie-Louise Dann injects some welcome wit as Barbara Castle and Naomi Frederick some style as the posh ally. 

Director Rupert Goold has learned from Billy Elliot the power of staging contrasting scenes simultaneously, though his combinations lack the bite of, say, the miners/ballerinas scene in the earlier musical. Choreographer Aletta Collins limits actual dancing to a brief night-at-the-pub scene, missing opportunity after opportunity to fill the stage with moving bodies. 

Bunny Christie's set is made up of giant versions of the plastic pieces you have to break off their stems when building a model car or plane, along with an ever-present giant letter 'a' for no clear reason except that it appears three times in the title. 

You can enjoy yourself at Made In Dagenham if you don't demand much. But I can name more than a dozen other West End musicals that are better.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Made In Dagenham - Adelphi Theatre 2014 

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