Douglas Rintoul’s production of this 2014 musical – it only ran for about six months in the West End with Gemma Arterton in the leading role – makes one wonder why audiences fell off back then. The score may have no hit the spot songs but it is tuneful and Richard Thomas’s lyrics are very good indeed. Maybe people just did not want to see a show about women who made the coverings for car seats at Ford’s Dagenham plant going on strike in 1968 for fair pay and ending up leading the campaign for equal pay.
It also has flaws. Richard Bean’s book veers wildly in tone, unlike the film on which it is based. The politicians – especially Harold Wilson, Prime Minister at the time – are caricatures, as are the civil servants and the American bosses who turn up to sort matters out. This all jars with a perfectly good story about how the leader of the strike, a fictional character called Rita O’Grady, rises to the occasion and how doing so affects her marriage.
But let that pass, the show is what it is and in Hornchurch, with Dagenham just down the road, it has great local resonance. Taken as it stand, one ends up with a splendid evening’s entertainment.
As Rita Daniella Bowen sings beautifully and catches all the nuances of how a perfectly intelligent woman trapped in the role of mother and housewife which so many women were at the time discovers unrealised talents. She is backed by a first rate cast.
Alex Tomkins is a suitably taken aback husband Eddie – wives then did not do that sort of thing, jobs like the ones they had were just there to augment the family income – and Claire Machin has a whale of a time as Barbara Castle, then Secretary of State for Employment and Industry, who came to their aid. Two years later, after the TUC had been persuaded by a speech Rita gets to make at the annual conference, the Equal Pay Act was introduced.
All the women in the machine shop are well defined characters, all get their chances with Angela Bain as the caustic Beryl and Wendy Morgan as the shop steward in particular seizing them with relish.
Rintoul’s production, straightforward and unfussy, is a splendid opening to his tenure as the theatre’s Artistic Director. It is one of those productions in which the cast is also the orchestra, something which does not always work to the advantage of a show but certainly does here. The glass ceiling for women is still there, this was just the first cracks, but it is well on its way to being shattered.