“Made in Dagenham” goes from zero to sixty in no time at all, motored mostly by laughs and tubthumping tunes. Sadly, the musical runs out of gas halfway through, thanks to a top-heavy plot and characters that don’t develop enough to get your heart into gear. You root for them — they’re plucky underdogs — but you don’t really care for them. However, powered by an all-out star turn from Gemma Arterton, the musical is populist and political, funny and furious, catching the national mood perfectly — and it should succeed on that basis.
The original narrative is pared down to its turning points in Richard Bean’s book. It’s gutsiest early on, as Ford Motor Company’s 200 female workers stand up from their sewing machines and strike. Led by Arterton’s headstrong housewife Rita O’Grady, they confront their male bosses, male union reps and male colleagues alike, first demanding classification as skilled workers and then insisting on equal pay. There’s real power in a chorus/picket line, and David Arnold’s score revs the female voice to great effect, ending the first half with a rousing call to arms, “Everybody Out.”
However, strikes are won by willpower, and the second half never finds the same surge. Where “Billy Elliott” builds to vicious running battles with police, “Made In Dagenham” drops into Westminster for a cordial sherry with the employment minister, Barbara Castle (Sophie-Louise Dann). Rita finds her voice surprisingly quickly and, by the time she reaches her climactic conference speech, she’s in danger of losing it again. One or two subplots evaporate and Bean never lets the story breathe.
But you’re laughing so much, it hardly matters. Bean and lyricist Richard Thomas (“Jerry Springer: the Opera”) pepper the piece with jokes — mostly great, some creaky and occasionally xenophobic. There’s a great Springsteen-esque setpiece that sees Ford’s Stetsoned exec (Steve Furst) fly in to sort out the strikers, delivering a pronunciation lesson as he hymns all things American and damns anything British, including Whipsnade Zoo and Danny La Rue.
Alongside the humor, Arnold’s score provides the fire. It manages variety without sacrificing its sixties-pop sound, channelling everything from the Shirelles to Cilla Black. Mostly, it’s robust and industrial — angry, even; more concerned with its take-home message than a take-home tune. That’s refreshing and unexpectedly inspiring.
Because Rupert Goold’s production addresses the present, he puts the whole, hierarchical nation onstage — from the unspeaking factory cleaner to Prime Minister Harold Wilson himself (an hilariously doddery Mark Hadfield) — and flags up the inequality that remains rife today. Bunny Christie’s brilliant design builds post-war Britain out of an Airfix model kit, never letting you forget that the entire nation — its homes, its pubs and its parliament — is dependent on industry. Cheer the strikers, but don’t forget context.
In Arterton, though, the show has an bona fide star. Too glam for a frazzled mum-of-two, she still finds the gawkiness of class consciousness and almost dares us to stay seated with her final number, “Stand Up.” Adrian Der Gregorian is blokey but soft-centered as her husband Eddie, while Sophie Stanton, Isla Blair and Sophie Isaac provide strong support on the factory floor.