An industrial dispute doesn’t sound like a great premise for a musical, but the story of the 1968 Ford machinists strike is bursting with drama, excitement, romance and plenty of laughs.
On its first tour outside the West End, it seems fitting that Made in Dagenham: The Musical should come to the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch, just five miles from the factory at which many audience members’ friends or family might have worked.
While the characters are very much Dagenham – brash, ballsy and fond of turning the air blue – they aren’t caricatures and thankfully there isn’t even a whisper of “apples and pears” or “roll out the barrels”.
And director Douglas Rintoul, whose mum worked at Ford, and his team have avoided glamorising the Swinging Sixties beyond recognition, so apart from the A-line skirts, quiffs and rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack, the story is pretty timeless – except, of course, for the outdated pay scales.
The whole cast are fantastic. Full of energy and with spotless comic timing, they double up as the band, seamlessly (no pun intended) switching between dancing, singing and playing saxophones and trumpets in the wings to provide the show’s live music.
But apart from a special mention for Graham Kent as a completely buffoonish Harold Wilson, it’s the girls who inevitably steal the show.
Daniella Bowen stars as Rita O’Grady, the tentative protagonist of the show, a housewife, mother and Ford machinist who ends up leading the workers’ fight for equal pay.
Warm, feisty and funny, Rita insists she is no “women’s libber”, and even scoffs at her own daughter’s dream to become a doctor.
But as Rita slowly wakes up to the injustice of working women being paid less than men – 87 per cent, in fact – can she convince those in power to make change?
For such a serious subject matter, the show is wonderfully silly and irreverent, with Angela Bain’s dirty old machinist Beryl providing countless proper laugh-out-loud moments.
Another hilarious scene sees pipe-smoking premier Mr Wilson and his advisers skipping around waving a Union Jack handkerchief while singing about quantitative easing.
But it’s in the second half that things start to get serious, when Ford flies in its American muscle – bearing a striking resemblance to a certain Mr Trump – to whip the Brits into shape and grind down the strikers.
Will the women win their fight for equal pay? Well, we already know that they do, but the story of how they got there is exhilarating, moving and sobering.
What really struck me was the realisation that equal pay legislation for women was not inevitable. The incredible personal sacrifices of real working class women, and their families, were needed to force the hand of the unions, the politicians and eventually employers.
And as reported in the Recorder last week, almost 50 years on from the strike, there’s still a long way to go until women earn the same as men.
So, go for the songs, the jokes and a thoroughly brilliant night of entertainment, but leave inspired to stand up against injustice, because it still exists.