A successful west end musical can have the most unlikely source material. Who would have thought that the story of 19th Century French politics (Les Misérables) or a book of T.S. Eliot poems (Cats) would be in the top ten list of most successful shows ever? Given this, it is less than surprising that a musical based on the seemingly dry subject of equal pay in a car factory in grey, late 1960’s industrial Britain, became a surprise hit back in 2014. Now LUU Music Theatre Society brings their considerable talent and energy to this revival at Leeds University for the next four nights.
The story follows Rita O’Grady (Ellen Corbett) and her rise from a modest sewing machine operator at the Ford factory in Dagenham, to spokeswoman for her gender, striking when asked to do the equivalent job as a man but for 15% less pay. Her decision to take a stand against this exploitation has consequences in both her workplace and home, with husband Eddie (George Marlin) initially hostile before eventually realising the justice of the cause his wife is championing. Her transformation from machinist to leader gives the show an opportunity to explore the cultural tropes of Britain fifty years ago, critically examining the misogyny that was part of everyday life during that period.
In other hands, this story could be dry and drab, however with a book by Richard Bean (One Man, Two Guvnors) and lyrics by Richard Thomas (Jerry Springer: The Opera), this show is both hilarious and warm, managing to simultaneously ridicule the prevailing attitudes whilst creating a series of characters who are sympathetic and engaging. Add in a catchy score by David Arnold and it is clear to see why this unapologetically British musical was a big hit when initially staged.
Leeds MTS are fortunate to have an extremely talented cohort of performers within the student body, allowing them to do justice to the lyrics and music. Corbett imbues Rita with an organic growth which makes her story arc believable from the opening; she moves from housewife (Busy Woman) to spokesperson (Stand Up), gradually growing in confidence and belief in her cause. Marlin mirrors this journey as Eddie, from bombastic and thuggish caricature to supportive husband, culminating in an unexpectedly emotional solo (The Letter).
It is undoubtedly in the large ensemble numbers that ‘Made in Dagenham’ has its chief strength. Director Daisy Fox utilises the vocal power of her female supporting cast (Freya MacTavish, Vicky Katzarov, Mia Ruby Crockhart, Emma Wilcox) to great effect, giving the songs ‘This is What We Want’, ‘We Nearly had it All’ and ‘Everybody Out’, real power and impact in the cavernous Riley Theatre. When allied to the individual vocal performances of Holly Condor (Connie’s Song) and Caitlin Etheridge as Barbara Castle (In an Ideal World), it makes for an exceptionally strong female vocal experience, which is apt in a musical championing the empowerment of women.
Balancing this vocal strength were some humorous individual performances from the male members of the cast. Daniel Newman was suitably cheesy as Cortina Man; Alex Lewis, as the pantomime villain Mr Tooley, displayed vocal dexterity and humour during ‘This is America’, and Marlin developed the character of Eddie with pathos. However, the award for scene stealing goes to Harry Toye as Prime Minister Harold Wilson, adding physical comedy to the plethora of great lines the character has throughout the show, he had the audience howling with laughter.
There were moments when the pace of the show sagged, chiefly around scene changes and some delayed entrances and microphone issues also meant a few of the jokes were lost. Both the size of the venue and the large space between stage and audience, sometimes made the energy of the show difficult to transmit, and the smaller domestic scenes lacked intimacy as a result. However, the eleven-piece band led by Musical Director Alex Boulton and Zara Harris matched the vocal dexterity of the cast perfectly and the brio and pace of the direction by Fox masked any opening night flaws.
Overall, a talented cast give energy and power to a funny, feisty, feminist musical with a quintessentially British flavour.
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 2nd March 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★