The words “We want sex equality” should be a rousing chant, especially in today’s political climate, but Made in Dagenham is a musical known less for its sucker punch and more for its gentle slap. The 2015 musical, adapted from the 2011 film, tells the story of the female workers at the Ford plantation in Dagenham who went on strike in 1968, after being classed as unskilled workers, but somewhat sidelines the political grit, instead focusing on the lives and relationships of the women. Ambriel Productions’ Made in Dagenham is no different.
Cat White is every bit as strong as her character, Rita,the musical’s lead and the women’s leader. She is an extremely capable actor who succeeds in bringing Rita to life, both in her role as wife and mother, and as woman and activist, capturing particularly well her character’s combination of insecurity and bravery.
Her delivery of the impromptu speech at the trade union conference was perhaps the best moment of the production. Her performance was made even more impressive by the fact that she recently lost her voice, unfortunately hindering the final song where the strain on her voice was evident. Benjamin Ashton, playing Rita’s husband Eddie, is another highly talented actor, making the best of an unsympathetic role.
Despite casting difficulties, largely caused by competition from Anna Karenina, who also beat Made in Dagenham to the Keble O’Reilly Theatre, some of the supporting cast were also very strong. Camilla Dunhill was fantastic as Barbara Castle, and in a gorgeous wig, as was Rachel Jones as the ditzy Clare. Joe Peden never failed to raise a laugh in a multitude of roles, commanding the stage whenever he was on it, and neither did Michael Crowder as Hopkins, whose expressions during ‘This is America’ were especially memorable. Rory Booth and Joe Peden also deserve a special mention for their sheer versatility, playing several roles each and all equally well.
It was also impressive that the large majority of the cast managed to sustain the Dagenham accent throughout, even in the songs. Unfortunately, the casting difficulties, which led to frequent confusion over doubling of roles, and Cat White’s loss of voice were far from the production’s only problems. Issues with the microphones were a problem: several of the characters’ lines, both in dialogue and song, were lost because they simply weren’t audible. The production also felt sloppy at times, as problems besetting choreography and stage management disrupted the audience’s experience and enjoyment. The moment when Rita agreed to accept a lift home from Barbara and then exited the stage in the opposite direction, was particularly memorable.
Similarly, Rita accepted Lisa’s offer to wear her red Biba dress for her speech at the trade union conference, and then didn’t wear it. This was made even more painful when both Mr Tooley and Eddie complimented her outfit, which was the same as it had been throughout the production.
The Simpkins Lee Theatre was far from full, and this is perhaps indicative of the musical Made in Dagenham itself. This production had a lot of potential, but unfortunately both the choice of musical and the problems plaguing the production seemed to hold it back.