playing until 10 April
Touted as the next big British musical when it opened – and drawing comparisons with Billy Elliot – Made in Dagenham had already posted its early closure notices by the time I came to see it. It’s sad to see another new British musical that didn’t manage to muster much staying power, and it’s become a high profile issue after shows such as The Full Monty, Viva Forever!, I Can’t Sing!, From Here To Eternity and Stephen Ward suffered a similar fate in recent times. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why, although in some cases it seems that producers and investors are looking for instant hits and throw the towel in before the show has time to gain a following. Having said that, the pressure to be commercially successful is no doubt painfully high. It’s a notoriously tricky business: why do some shows fail while others like We Will Rock You and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which both received lukewarm reviews at best, thrive(d)? It will be interesting to see how Bend It Like Beckham fares when it takes over from the wonderful Once at the Phoenix Theatre in May.
Anyway, the fate of Made In Dagenham has been sealed; now I’ve got round to seeing it, I can see why it hasn’t become a sure-fire hit. While it’s reasonably enjoyable, it doesn’t have enough grit or punch (either emotional or comedic) to make people part with the kind of money that West End tickets now go for.
It’s an impressive start: Bunny Christie’s inspired design kicks off with the split-level O’Grady household before revealing the factory interior, with revolving car parts and production lines filling the height and depth of the stage. It’s contrasted with the vivid 60s vibe conjured by the colourful, and at times garish, costumes and backdrops: vibrant ‘flower power’ and working class hard graft are present in equal measure.
In the lead role of Rita O’Grady, Gemma Arterton glows with natural stage presence and makes for a likeable heroine; her vocals are strong, although it’s an obvious case of star power rather than being the best voice on the stage – that goes to Emma Linders as Pauline, a minor role but a much more powerful voice. It’s an assured and unaffected performance, but for me lacks much of the soul of Sally Hawkins’ portrayal in the original film version: the transformation from reluctant spokesperson to empowered leader is a little unconvincing. Arterton is supported by a selection of strong performances: Adrian der Gregorian shines in musical numbers as Eddie O’Grady; Sophie Stanton is an instant hit with the audience as foul-mouthed but warm-hearted Beryl; and Sophie Isaacs is a ball of energy as Sandra. The one obvious misfire is in some of the choreography and its execution: it is far, far from the best dancing in the West End right now, and at times I wasn’t sure if ensemble members were in character as naturally bad dancers or, as it seemed, just can’t be bothered to put the energy in.
So with great design and a serviceable set of performances, why does Made In Dagenham fizzle rather than fly? Unlike the women of the story, the musical numbers are not revolutionary and bring few surprises, but by and large they maintain the show’s warm energy, and number’s such as ‘Everybody Out’, ‘Stand Up’ (not be confused with the Memphis the Musical number of the same name…) and ‘Made In Dagenham’ all hit the mark. The answer to the fizzle lies in the book and direction, which is surprising given the pairing of Richard Bean and Rupert Goold. Bean’s script is rather shallow and lacks much dramatic purpose – nor does it make me laugh as much as I would like. The depiction of Harold Wilson (Mark Hadfield) as a misogynistic, musical buffoon for me gets tired all too quickly. Similarly, I couldn’t really raise a laugh at the personification of obnoxious American corporate business played by Steve Furst, and found his Act II opening number ‘This Is America’ frankly cringeworthy. Then again, the woman next to me was cackling with laughter, so I guess it’s a matter of opinion.
The problem is that nothing is either moving enough or funny enough: both the drama and the comedy can’t reach anything higher than pretty average, which means the show fails to remain compelling. There are elements of the film that could have been retained to create far more poignancy, such as the story of Connie, but these seem to have all been cut or drastically altered for the stage version.
The achievements of these real-life characters unarguably deserve to be celebrated, as debate over equal pay still rages on. Yet this show, while it has so much promise, in the end feels anti-climactic and doesn’t fully do their story justice. It’s a shame that this new British musical hasn’t done enough to survive in the tough West End; yet there is clearly support from some theatregoers judging by the reaction of the admittedly small audience, so I’d like to see a redeveloped version on a tour, where I think it might fare better without the large capacity theatre and pricey tickets.
I saw Made in Dagenham through Mousetrap Theatre’s ‘WestEnd4£10’ scheme, which offers cheap tickets to 19-23 year olds and full-time performing arts students. They also run the ‘TheatreLive4£5’ scheme, which encourages young people between the ages of 15 and 18 to attend the theatre without parents or teachers. Find out more on their website here.