Vintage Fords flock to Hornchurch for the homecoming opening of this first major revival of the 2014 musical Made In Dagenham. It’s based on the film of a few years earlier, which embroiders the story of the Dagenham machinists’ 1968 strike.
Inside the packed auditorium are some of those original activists, as well as a contingent from the New Wolsey Theatre, less than an hour up the A12 by souped-up Cortina. For this is a co-production, transferring to Suffolk after its three weeks on Billet Lane.
As Douglas Rintoul, the Queen’s new artistic director says, it’s a wonder it took them so long. Both are innovative, energetic producing houses at the heart of their community. His production of this proudly British musical boasts a huge cast of actor/musicians; the story moves smoothly through the upsets and setbacks – emotional and domestic, political and personal – which precede the triumphant TUC climax.
A functional grey industrial set (Hayley Grindle) opens up to reveal the musicians – the men accompany the women’s scenes, and vice versa – and to admit the River Plant (so many sewing machines), the Berni Inn and the Hospital. It’s all stripped back and simple: props are handed on, the breakfast teapot is popped back in the factory locker, one scene is overlaid on another.
There is a host of strong, stylish performances. Rita, the fictional “trouble-maker” at the heart of the story, is played with affecting honesty by Daniella Bowen, her man, his mindless masculinity threatened by Rita’s new-found political voice, is convincingly done by Alex Tomkins – their duet is touchingly played, and beautifully sung.
But it’s the broad-brush comedy characters that make this musical so much fun, and have the best of Richard Bean’s uneven script.
Angela Bain gives great value as the pugnacious, potty-mouthed Beryl, Hornchurch regular Sarah Scowen (trumpet) is the lexically-challenged Clare, Wendy Morgan plays Connie, the veteran union official who inspires our Rita to take on the TUC. Her lost love Monty, torn between his members and management, nicely suggested by Anthony Hunt.
Clare Machin is a superb Barbara Castle, the fiery-haired minister whose sympathy for the women’s cause is vital in achieving their goals. Her Prime Minister – an even more pantomime Harold Wilson, clueless with his pipe, his Gannex and his old-fashioned sexism – is played with gusto by Graham Kent, who also manages two more character roles: the sadistic Latin master and, stand-up sexism personified, Chubby Chuff. Tooley, the villainous Voice of America – with more than a touch of Trump – is given a bold, brash performance by Jeffrey Harmer. Greg from Personnel, a misogynist in a blue suit, is Daniel Carter-Hope; the middle-class management man and his feisty wife are Jamie Noar and Loren O’Dair. And there’s a priceless backing trio of Aides and Ford men: Thomas Sutcliffe, Joey Hickman and Steve Simmonds.
Ben Goddard is the MD, keeping his ever-changing forces together from the keyboard in the wings – an excellent sound, especially when they come together as a big band, with nice period touches, like the accordion or the snatch of Hammond for the Social Club.
As political theatre goes, this is more Billy Elliot than Bertold Brecht. It sometimes feels contrived and manipulative. But it is an entertaining, heart-warming reminder of an important battle in the struggle for women’s rights, even if, as the excellent programme reminds us, the war is still not won.