Review of Made in Dagenham by Bishop’s Stortford Musical Theatre Company at South Mill Arts
Never can the showbiz adage “the show must go on” have been more severely tested in the re-formed Bishop’s Stortford Musical Theatre Company’s 60-year history than it was at the start of this week.
With months of rehearsals and all the other work and preparations associated with staging a production virtually complete, the cast and backstage crew assembled at South Mill Arts on Sunday to build the set in readiness for Tuesday’s opening night of Made in Dagenham.
But when the set – hired at some considerable cost from a theatrical supplies company – arrived and was unpacked, they were not impressed.
Flats, curtains and other materials were in a poor state – wet, mouldy and in need of impromptu cleaning – while some elements were missing.
The set design included two towers at the back of the stage to help represent the Ford Motors plant in Dagenham, but missing brackets and safety rails meant BSMTC were unable to build them and had to go without.
As a consequence, Sunday’s tech rehearsal – for sound and lighting – overran into Monday evening’s dress rehearsal, which meant the cast took to the stage on Tuesday without the benefit of a full, uninterrupted run-through of the show.
All of which explains why the opening night’s first half took a while to warm up, choking and stalling in a couple of places, but the company found their top gear after the interval pit stop and were running smoothly in the second half.
It’s 1968. Elizabeth II has been Queen for 16 years, England are the World Cup holders, Harold Wilson is Prime Minister – and women's liberation is on the move.
At Ford’s Dagenham plant, 5,000 men build the cars while 200 women work as sewing machinists on the upholstery for the seats. When the women hear they are to be regraded as unskilled workers, losing part of their pay, their objections and grievance go unmet by management. They demand equal pay – and go on strike when they are refused.
When Ford America parachutes in an executive to resolve the strike, he stops the production line and lays off all the men to pressure the women into going back to work. The feisty female factory workers go to Westminster to meet Employment Secretary Barbara Castle, who passes on Ford’s offer of 92% of the male pay rate – an offer the women refuse. Following an appearance by their leader at the TUC (Trades Union Congress) conference in Eastbourne, the unions are persuaded to make equal pay a core policy –eventually leading to the Equal Pay Act 1970.
At the heart of the story of Made in Dagenham are Rita and Eddie O’Grady, who both work at the Ford plant and have two children.
In her first leading role in a BSMTC production, Rebecca Faulkner (who shares the role across the six performances this week with Charlotte Crosby) delivers a pole-position performance as Rita, fully encapsulating the neglected wife and mother who finds a fire within her in pursuit of her push not only for pay parity but also respect at home. Becky is a natural on stage who is blessed with equally impressive acting and singing abilities, and her performance in the number We Nearly Had It All illustrated this perfectly. With her at the wheel, the show is on the right road.
Darrell Williams – who for half of the six shows has his own lad Leo playing his on-stage son Graham, along with Aria Sparkes as Sharon – gives much better support to his leading lady than his character does to his wife. Needy and self-centred Eddie shows more interest in his beloved Millwall and motorbike than his marriage, but he still loves his wife, even if he forgets their wedding anniversary. Individually and together, Becky and Darrell are a convincing pairing who bring vocal strength and acting gravitas.
Among the BSMTC females, Alison Mitchell as union leader Connie, Lucy Miller as dolly bird Sandra and Michelle Hills as ditsy Clare caught the eye on Tuesday, while Emma Middleton (sharing the role with Cat Quigley) caught the ear as Rita’s biggest supporter, Beryl, whose vocabulary was responsible for the show’s ‘parental advisory’ warning. Lucy and Emma in particular played their colourful parts with relish, while Alison and Michelle nailed their more restrained characters. With BSMTC newcomer Hayley Gillies as Cass, they made a fine ensemble.
The sub-story of the Ford management leader’s stylish, Oxford-educated wife Lisa Hopkins secretly supporting Rita’s cause for equality meant Helen Bickley and Becky Faulkner got a chance to reprise their pairing in last year’s Kipps – The Half a Sixpence Musical, in which they played mother and daughter. The two work well together.
The BSMTC boys were outshone by the girls – which is as it should be, given the story – but special mentions for the male ensemble’s use of tyres in the Union Song number, for choreographer Sean Marcs in the glitzy Cortina and, given that he lost his own wife to cancer only last spring, for Doug Sheppard for the hospital bedside scene, perhaps the most poignant.
Italia Conte-trained Peter Dedman, Daniel Abbott and BSMTC chair Charlotte Pritchard were all required to do accents as the brash and arrogant American exec Mr Tooley, Harold Wilson and the PM’s Cabinet ally Barbara Castle respectively. Charlotte performed well throughout and had a good handle on her Yorkshire vocal brief.
As ever, BSMTC’s strength is in numbers, and there was lots to enjoy in the various ensemble numbers throughout, especially when the full cast of 38 was in voice.
Tuesday night was not without its technical issues – the sound levels at the start occasionally made it difficult to hear the dialogue when the 10-piece live orchestra led by musical director and BSMTC debutant Will Sarjeant was providing accompaniment, movement could be seen and heard (that Cortina front must have been heavy!) through the gauze curtain and the house lights inexplicably came on in the second half, all of which were distractions, albeit momentary.
But in the context of events in the 48 hours leading up to opening night, the cast and production team – headed by director David Rutter – can be proud of having pulled together to put on a show that entertained for much of its duration on Tuesday, although the running time of two hours and 40 minutes would have been 10 minutes shorter had the pace been tighter in the first half.
Made in Dagenham continues at South Mill Arts every evening at 7.30pm until Saturday, when there is also a 2.30pm matinee. Visit the venue’s box office in person or online at https://southmillarts.ticketsolve.com/ticketbooth/event-categories/926053 or call 01279 710200 for tickets.
+The children’s roles of Graham and Sharon were played for three performances by Noah Crosby (appearing with his mother Charlotte as his stage mum Rita) and Lola-Rose Pearce.
All pictures by Lynn Graseman