I enjoyed the film of Made in Dagenham, but the musical was completely new to me. That on its own would have made the evening special, but we were also treated to an outstanding performance from Swanage Musical Theatre Company.
It is almost a perfect show for amateur companies. Most societies have more women than men and it is a case of ‘the more the merrier’ for the women’s chorus, but there are also a number of meaty lead roles. None of the songs is likely to become a musical theatre classic, but they all have catchy tunes and the chorus numbers are not over-demanding musically. The book is clever and amusing, with a lot of laugh-out-loud lines.
At the same time, the show is edgy and makes telling points about a number of issues, above all the treatment of women in the 1960s. It is not just the unfairness in pay that is the trigger for the story, but the constant denigration of women. Even the union representative (male) points out to the management negotiators (likewise all male): “You’re management, I’m union, but we’re all men.” Barbara Castle is defined by her red hair and good legs before her intellectual qualities.
Since the show is about women’s power, the chorus, as well as being large, must have a commitment which knocks the audience back in its seats. That is exactly what the three first numbers in the show do, and the energy level of this production never drops. The mood is also established by clever repartee between the women workers, especially potty-mouthed Beryl (Laura Jolly, a gifted comedienne). I doubt that the Mowlem stage has ever hosted so many four-letter words in one evening, but they make for realism rather than causing offence.
The success of the show hinges on Rita O’Grady, the woman who finds herself leading the strike, and Emma Fidler is superb. Not only is she an extremely competent actor, but she has a voice to die for and boy, does she know how to deliver a song. Her husband, Eddie, is not sure whether to be proud or resentful of her sudden fame, and Adrian Lane captures this confusion exactly. He also has the voice to carry off his big solo.
Prime Minister Harold Wilson is presented as a complete caricature: rather unfair but very funny, and Mike Hill skilfully wrings every drop of comedy from the part. Julia Gadenne puts in an assured performance as Barbara Castle. As Connie, in many ways Rita’s mentor, Pearl Nash’s voice losing nothing in comparison with Emma’s. Brian Travers, as the brash American brought over to sort out the troublesome Limeys, leads the terrific but difficult act 2 opener and carries it off apparently effortlessly.
The key supporting roles strike exactly the right note: the devious boss, Mr Hopkins (Simon Wells), his wife whose sympathies lie more with her fellow-women than with him (Gaynor Wells), sexpot Sandra (Sara Morgan), and delightfully dozy Clare (Verity Aldous).
The set is cleverly flexible and director Karen Woolley makes good use of it, although when all the chorus is on the comparatively small Mowlem stage, the opportunities for creative choreography are limited. The busy stage crew were remarkably error-free for a first night, as were the band, led by musical director Nick Stewart.
I cannot remember a show so enthusiastically received by a first-night audience – and deservedly so. Some sophisticated conurbation-dwellers think of Swanage as being impossibly remote, but this show makes even the journey to the outer reaches of Purbeck worthwhile. It plays on Friday 1st and Saturday 2nd at 7.30pm.