Over dinner, my friend and I both questioned whether the addition of music to the storyline, in Made in Dagenham, would trivialise the issue the musical seeks to address – gender pay equality.
Arguably, however, in director Miranda Mackay’s Made in Dagenham, the music and singing makes the characters and the devotion to equal pay more real. In their solo performances, you can visibly hear how important this issue is to them. Connie, played by Isabella Gilpin, has devoted her whole life to this cause, and the power behind Gilpin’s singing reflects this.
The music throughout is used not to trivialise but to give these women a voice, and the accompaniment of the ensemble, and band, demonstrates how Rita and the Ford Dagenham women are fighting not for themselves, but the average woman, embodied and symbolised by the ensemble. Theirs is a fight that will affect women for generations to come.
Regarding costume design, the uniformity of the outfits the working men and women in Dagenham wear are a symbol of their dependence on the Ford factory for employment. More poignantly, however, they demonstrate the unity that the women – and, indeed, the men – at Dagenham, have for one another.
But whilst the men are resigned to their ‘blue collared’ outfits, it is clear from the start that these women are fighting to break this mould. Rita’s yellow dress reflects the yellow wallpaper in her house; she is a family woman, and her fight is not only for her, but more importantly, her family’s futures.
It is evident that despite this solidarity, these women have their own unique identities. This fight may be for equal pay, but these actresses make it clear that these women are all unique. They will not be confined to the homogeneity that the Ford management want them to so desperately preside within, and they are all distinct individuals.
Ellie Thomas, as Claire, is convincingly scatty but her singing and performance are powerful. She persuades us that Claire is unashamed of who she is – she doesn’t care what the other girls, or indeed, anyone thinks. Similarly, Grace Albery as Sandra accuses Monty of being useless, but does so unashamedly with a visible tone of sarcasm. She is brash, brazen, but most importantly, she is brave.
David Garrick’s portrayal of Harold Wilson was comical (pipe and all), but he hadn’t quite got the Huddersfield accent right. Yet somehow the fact his accent was not quite right mirrored Wilson’s presence in the play – slightly out of place.
The music throughout heightened the intensity of the plot but when Wilson appears on stage, he is at odds with the music, battling with it – not embracing the music, like the other characters. This demonstrates what Made in Dagenham is all about, and what it’s not about. It’s not about politicians, or corporate slime-balls. It is about the average man. Or more truthfully, the average woman.
Garrick, as Wilson, and indeed, De Giorgi, as Mr Hopkins, Ford Dagenham’s Managing Director, play into their roles as uncaring, compassionless politicians and capitalists well. Their verbose, ostentatious displays are compelling, to the extent that the audience is determined not to like them.
But not liking them doesn’t mean we can’t laugh at them. Despite the seriousness of the topic, this production of Made in Dagenham is oddly funny, without undermining the fundamental message. That we laugh at Mr Hopkins’ attempts to appease Henry Ford, or Wilson’s womanising, is testament to the actors’ abilities to play these characters with conviction. The audience’s laughter parallels the laughter of these men in response to the request for equal pay – they trivialise it, they see it as a joke.
And the set design reinforces this. A Ford sign looms ominously over the stage for most of the entire first half, as if the eye of God is watching over these workers. It seems unlikely that these women will ever achieve the gender equality or the C grade they want. The staging decision, with a series of stairs, and a platform above, leave the management peering over the women in their uncomfortable, hot factory. Mackay’s decisions for the stage starkly shows the disparity and inequality between the men and the women.
But by the end, Rita, played by Maddy Page, has climbed the stairs, and delivers her speech to 3,000 trade union members. The positioning of Rita, and her husband, Eddie, played by Eoghan McNeils, at the end of the play is powerfully poignant. Rita is on the step above, but her and Eddie are now the same height. Her fight for equality has symbolically been achieved.