Made in Dagenham

16th to 20th November 2021

Richard Bean | The Little Theatre | Directed by Joshua J Knott

That a gender pay gap still exists in 2021 (7.9% among full-time employees according to the Office for National Statistics) is something which should shock and outrage us more than it does. Perhaps Knighton Park Amateur Operatic Society's production of Made in Dagenham, which opened last night in Leicester, will help to stoke some flames of indignation on the subject. If not, it's a bloody great night of musical theatre and marks a triumphant return to the post-pandemic stage for this quality company.

The show tells the real-life story of a group of Ford Dagenham plant sewing machinists and their fight against sexual discrimination. In 1968, female machinists, who made car seat covers, were downgraded to 'unskilled' which meant they were earning 15% less than their male colleagues. The strike action which ensued directly contributed to the passing of the Equal Pay Act in 1970 but it wasn't until 1984 that Ford finally agreed to regrade the women as skilled workers.

But this is no serious night of political theatre. Like the 2010 film on which this musical version is based, some of the messier aspects of industrial relations history are neatly brushed aside and we are presented with an upbeat, heart-warming tale of people power. Directed by Joshua J Knott, this is musical magic with an edge.

Plunged into a late 1960s world of Bernie Inns, Cortinas and rampant sexism, we meet Rita and Eddie O'Grady, both workers at the Ford factory. As the central couple, Sarah Barton-Wales and Nick Cox have both the voices and the chemistry to carry the rest of the talented cast in their leading roles. The strain of the strike on their marriage and family has an emotional honesty, most powerfully captured in a stunning performance of 'The Letter' by Nick Cox.

It's female solidarity, however, which is the beating heart of the story. From the opening number (Busy Woman) to act one's Everybody Out and the rousing finale (Stand Up) the women lead the way. As they did in real life. There's a real sense of unity and comradeship in the performances of foul-mouthed Beryl (Leeann Rana), ditzy Clare (Charlotte Brown), ambitious Cass (Jade Afflick-Goodall), dollybird Sandra (Jodie Blowfield) and union activist Connie (Mary Delahunty).

Liz Kavanagh-Knott's Barbara Castle, the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, balances smiles and steeliness nicely and provides an amusing contrast to Jason Woodcock's bumbling Harold Wilson who fears the power of the TUC.

There's excellent support from weary union rep Monty (Martin Bell), Ford Managing Director Hopkins (David Lovell) and his pro-strike wife Lisa (Sarah Woodcock-Tarry). Martin Green's arrogant American Ford boss Tooley, flown in to break the strike, opens Act Two with great energy in one of the shows funniest songs (We got Hollywood and Vegas too/You got Thames TV and Whipsnade Zoo). The orchestra, under Steven Duguid's musical direction, ably support the whole talented cast and ensemble throughout.

Positive stories about unionism are few and far between; Made in Dagenham is an important reminder of the huge improvements collectivism has delivered in our country's history. We should know about these courageous women. Despite tackling serious themes of sexual discrimination, power and politics this is a sweet-natured story delivered with plenty of heart. A highly recommended production. Picket for a ticket.

Made in Dagenham is playing at The Little Theatre in Leicester from the 16th to 20th November 2021.

Made in Dagenham