I remember visiting the giant Ford car plant in Dagenham on a school trip in the early 1970s.
A group of schoolgirls in mini-skirts walked into a factory filled with 5,000 “hairy-arsed” men. It was an experience I’ll never forget.
So I fully understand the battle a group of 200 of its women workers had in fighting the American car giant for the right to equal pay (and equal respect).
Made In Dagenham, which has opened at London’s Adelphi Theatre, doesn’t do much for Ford’s image but it’s a spectacularly good musical that hits all the right notes.
If it’s one thing British stage and screen is good at then it’s producing a rollicking good story about the rise of the underdog.
Made In Dagenham follows a long tradition of successful titles – Billy Elliot, Brassed Off, Gregory’s Girl, Kinky Boots, and, recently, Pride.
The film, starring Bob Hoskins and Sally Hawkins, was much-loved by the public and the stage musical will do the same thanks to its lively, toe-tapping songs, and engaging performances.
The true story takes place in 1968 and Gemma Arterton has gone from sexy Bond girl to a vision in floral Crimplene as mum-of-two and Essex girl Rita O’Grady.
Her husband, Eddie (Adrian Der Gregorian) works on the shop floor at Fords, in a male-only environment, making Cortinas, while Rita and the girls are stuck in a sweatshop of a shed producing the vehicles’ “leatherette” seats.
The management restructure the workforce’s pay-scales downgrading the women to unskilled workers and making their pay substantially below that of the “skilled” men.
Rita leads the women out on strike and their actions brought about major reforms in the workplace.
It’s an oddly dry storyline, you’d think, for a musical but it works brilliantly.
Richard Bean has come up with some cracking dialogue (such a huge improvement on his recent, lamentable, Pitcairn) filled with earthy, working-class, humour.
The story zips along pretty much like Bunny Christie’s impressive and very clever airfix-kit styled set which sees a conveyor belt of seats chunter over the stage and scenery made from car parts.
David Arnold and Richard Thomas have produced a sparkling score, full of catchy, up-beat, tunes which I loved.
Made In Dagenham is a big production number which gets the show under way and epitomises the resilience and indomitable spirit of both the town and its blue-collar workforce.
Rita’s workmates are a lively bunch. Sophie Stanton is outstanding as the foul-mouthed Beryl who cheekily asks everyone “Are you gettin’ any?” (you’d never get away with her mouth in the modern workplace without her being up on sexual harassment charges).
Clare (Heather Craney) is frequently, you know, whatsit..yes, lost for words, while the diminutive Lulu lookalike Sandra (Sophie Isaacs with a belting voice) dreams of a better future.
But, while Made In Dagenham is a stand-out story about female empowerment, Mark Hadfield’s turn as a vaudeville Harold Wilson, almost steals the show.
The real Wilson would never have lost to Edward Heath in 1970 if he’s been more like this riotous song-and-dance misogynist.
He’s almost outgunned by Steve Furst’s outrageous cameo as the larger than life, Stetson-wearing, gun-toting American car boss drafted in to bring the girlies down.
There’s strong support from Isla Blair as shop steward Connie and Sophie-Lousie Dann as a fiery Barbara Castle.
It’s refreshing to see a new production with a strong story about women and a top cast of female actors doing it justice.
This inspirational, feel-good, show, is a must see.