From the 16th to the 19th January, Shotgun theatre took over Exeter Phoenix to deliver their performances of hit-musical Made in Dagenham, and we at Razz were lucky enough to be invited along to the opening night. As the auditorium filled with a quiet buzz, the stage was clearly set with a gritty, minimalist collection of props, with the orchestra partially hidden by a chain link fence. The presence of the orchestra on the stage instantly created a feeling of intensity and a certain rawness; by seeing everything laid out on the stage before us it felt almost as though we were part of the very Ford factory that lies at the heart of Made in Dagenham.
From the very first note it felt as if there wasn’t a moment to waste; the cast hurtled into their first number with an infectious energy that instantly captured the attentions of the audience and encapsulated the defiant spirit of the show. The cast made full use of the minimalist stage props in order to move seamlessly from the home Rita O’Grady and her hapless husband Eddie share with their two children (who offer sparkling performances despite the chaos of the first musical number), into the factory floor of Ford Dagenham. The magic of the show was found in the natural chemistry between the characters, particularly between the female machinists who, lead by Rita, begun their journey toward maintaining their skilled status and pay, and then towards equal pay. Growing up in Essex I was curious to see the extent to which the thick Estuary accent could be maintained, but was pleasantly surprised by just how immersed the actors were in their roles. Interspersed with genuine laugh-out-loud moments, the tension gradually builds as the union meetings crumble, much to the displeasure of Henry Ford and Prime Minister Harold Wilson, and culminate in industrial strike. The pace of the speech was relentless; with a constant backward and forward between the characters creating a very natural sense of humour that ran through their interactions and illuminated the personal aspect of the true story. Interspersed with genuine laugh-out-loud moments, the tension gradually builds as the union meetings crumble, much to the displeasure of Henry Ford and Prime Minister Harold Wilson, and culminate in industrial strike. There were several isolated moments of technical difficulty in the first half, however these hardly noticed thanks to the constant level of intensity in the actors’ performances, and were quickly forgotten as scenes ties together in a frenetic whirl of onstage activity.
The dynamic pace of the production was only heightened in the emotional second half, as Rita and the workers of Ford’s Dagenham struggle with the financial cost of industrial strike, in the face of the superbly caricatured Henry Ford’s determination to break their will. However, there were brief glimpses of stasis in which the audience could catch their breath, particularly in the tension and heartbreak of the duet between Rita and Eddie. A show that could easily have fallen into sentimentality was however quickly set back on the path of campaigning for equal rights, culminating in Rita’s emotional final speech. Through a particularly clever use of levels and staging, the speech delivered in both passion and conviction; leaving the audience totally silent, transfixed. The show ended with a final reprise of the Made in Dagenham melody, packing a powerful resolution with the full cast and orchestra giving every last drop of energy that persuaded the audience to give a standing ovation.
As cliché as it may seem, in the week of Trump’s presidential inauguration the struggle that the women of Ford’s endure in Made in Dagenham seems depressing relevant, even forty-nine years on from the true story. With a hugely energetic cast, a wonderfully executed musical score throughout, and a high level of production that clearly shows a huge attention to detail, Shotgun theatre have crafted an exceptional, inspirations rendition of the story. Through all the dazzling lights and intricately choreographed musical numbers, Made in Dagenham tells a vital story of persistence and bravery that is beautifully captured from start to end; personalising the story in a confrontational, realistic manner that resonates long after the final round of applause.
– Sarah Turnnidge