If Made In Dagenham is soon to be booted out of the Adelphi after just a few months, I will be entitled to say “I told you so”, but, having belatedly grabbed a cheap ticket to see it, I will take no pleasure from actually doing that. Frankly, a big musical about industrial relations in 1960s Dagenham (“so good they named it once”) never seemed like a crowd puller to me, even if it could be pitched as Billy Elliot meets The Pajama Game, and the film on which it is based was only a modest success. This is a very expensive production – 30+ cast, full orchestra, superb sets designed by Bunny Christie – and, at a time when West End producers rarely take big risks with new work, early closure (following so quickly after I Can’t Sing) would be a setback from which all of us who love musical theatre could suffer. Not only that, it would also be very sad, because there is so much to like about this show. On the face of it, Richard Bean’s witty, satirical book (adapted from William Ivory’s screenplay) should be the jewel in the show’s crown. It gives the stage version a comedy dimension which was absent from the film, but it proves to be both a blessing and a curse. As seen in Great Britain, Bean is a master of topical satire, but his targets here include Harold Wilson (played by Mark Hadfield as a complete buffoon) and Barbara Castle (Sophie-Louise Dann), both of whom faded into obscurity nearly 40 years ago. So, is it any wonder that many excellent jokes fall on stony ground with a modern audience? Some scenes would have fitted more comfortably into a Mike Yarwood show in the 1970s and these irrelevant diversions betray the story’s core sincerity. The strength of Bean’s book may also give a clue as to how this project was approached – was it envisioned as a new work of musical theatre or as a play into which songs could be inserted? Sadly, it often seems like the latter and the show struggles repeatedly to overcome the banality of David Arnold’s music and Richard Thomas’s lyrics. Maybe just a couple of songs worthy of reaching the Radio 2 playlist could have made all the difference to the show’s fortunes. Nobody leaves this show humming the songs, they will not remember them that long. To be fair, Thomas comes up with several humorous lines that are in tune with Bean’s script, only to lapse back to the trite. However, when it comes to the performances, there are no downsides. As the reluctant strike leader Rita, Gemma Arterton is a revelation and her co-workers on the Ford Cortina production line form a brilliant comedy team. Isla Blair is moving as the Union representative stricken with Cancer and Adrian Der Gregorian has a decent stab at the thankless role of Rita’s neglected husband. Marshalled by top director Rupert Goold and choreographer Aletta Collins, this entire company puts everything into the show, singing their hearts out to sell even the most mediocre of songs. Other musical adaptations of small British films – Kinky Boots (already a hit on Broadway), Bend it Like Beckham, Mrs Henderson Presents and Pride– are on the way, so let us hope that the lessons from the strengths and weaknesses of this production will be well heeded.
Performance date: 14 January 2014