Written by Rebecca Harrison
All photos by Abby Swain
LUU Music Theatre’s rendition of the 2010 musical Made in Dagenham had their first run last night in Riley Smith Theatre with the helpful hands of LUU Backstage Society. The show follows the joyous and up-lifting story of a group of women who work in a Ford factory making car seats. When their pay gets degraded from skilled to unskilled, they decide to go on strike. Daisy Fox expertly directs a spectacular tirade of laughs, heart and irony.
The curtain opens on our heroine, Rita O’Grady (Ellen Corbett), at home, churning her husband and children out of the house. “Busy Woman” wonderfully executes the motoring energy of women as the engine of the household, and opens the main crux of the plot: “the basic F-ing difference between us (women) and F-ing them (men)”. The stage is a circus of women dolled-up in classic 60’s mod fashion and macho men in mechanics’ overalls, flinging their towels and limbs in showgirl synchronisation to the titular song “Made in Dagenham”.
This vivacity does not let up. The pacing is perfect and never eases its hold on the audience. Whether the songs settle into ballads, or burst into elaborate ensemble numbers, the production creates spectacle without ever being garish. This is in part due to the fantastic lighting (aside from slight staging issues with spotlights), which was creative and always enhanced the mood and drama of each scene. Even more credit has to go to the musical directors Zara Harris and Alex Boulton, who orchestrate a live band with stellar technical prowess.
Corbett is fantastic as Rita. She carries the weight of the show’s plot and emotional development on her Mary Janes. Corbett delivers punchlines and heart-wrenching suckerpunches in equal parts and with equal ease. She rolls out songs in a flawless Essex accent and hits the perfect pitch for her character: a modest but courageous woman who insists she is “not political” but whose determination is fueled by a keen desire for fairness.
However, it would be wrong to single out just one performer: as the show goes on, we are hit with star performance after star performance. There are stunning high notes from Mia Crockart as Sandra; an incredible belt from Caitlin Etheridge as Barbara Castle (so good that the cheer startled the next few lines out of her head); Holly Conder is great as the tired but not-yet-disillusioned union convener, Connie; Freya MacTavish endears us to Clare’s ditsy charm with a vocally perfect “Wossname”; and George Marlin’s rendition of “The Letter” is a heart-breaking revelation of vulnerability beneath macho pride, which crescendos to the perfect place for it to really punch us in the gut with the final “I can’t do this on my own no more”.
Unbelievably, that doesn’t cover half of the performances. Alex Lewis goes in full-throttle as the yank, Mr Tooley, paired with two back-up dancers which duplicated throughout the song into flanks of khaki-wearing soulja girls with spectacularly comedic choreography (slow-motion, action-movie running around the stage and salutes strategically placed to further ironise Tooley’s exclamation of caricature American patriotism). The Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, played by Harry Toyé, was a hilariously mixture of incompetent and apathetic. The bouncing Westminster advisors were a fantastic touch. Their silliness satirised the disgustingly c’est la vie attitudes of the men at the top of the food chain, coupling political force with physical hilarity. I also loved the touch of farce where Toyé re-enters the stage after falsely exiting through his office cupboard.
The design of the production was also fantastic: the costumes were accurate of the period with an appropriate touch of glamour, and particularly funny was the men stumbling out in aprons, marigolds and dusters. The stage was layered with a platform at the back, allowing further dynamism in the ensemble dances and facilitated the carousel-like whirling of different characters on and off the stage. The only let down was a few sound issues which obscured some sections of songs and dialogue, but such technical issues are expected with a production of this calibre and complexity.
Made in Dagenham was an absolute delight to watch and equally delicious to recollect while writing this review. The show had me listening to the soundtrack on the way home, and even then had me wishing that the recordings were those of Music Theatre’s performers. Get yourself a ticket for one of the next three nights here.