Industrial unrest is unlikely grist to the mill, but it's made plenty of dough for the British film industry, whether it's Pride, Billy Elliott or The Full Monty. This easily digestible adaptation of the 2010 Britflick has a surreally silly streak that almost, but doesn't quite, undermine its attempts to depict the morally grey landscape of factory and TUC politics in glorious Technicolor.
In 1960s Dagenham, the 200 female machinists who sew the car seat covers are livid to discover that their pay has been downgraded to class B, or unskilled work, despite the complex designs they create and wrangle in a stifling shed. Rita, a married mother of two, is their initially unwilling spokeswoman, but when both their union and the factory try to fob her off with a toothless grievance procedure, her reluctance hardens into resolve.
What follows is a nylon-bright masterclass in industrial activism. Outfitted in an endlessly rotating wardrobe of perky mini-dresses, the machinists stage an unauthorised walkout. Management are furious, not least because they are just about to launch the Ford Cortina – as well as utterly astonished by the sharp claws on these unlikely wildcat strikers. Mark Hadfield as Harold Wilson is shrunken into his suit, delivering a fabulously Freudian, uncontrollable speech to the machinists about how he knows women through passing them on the stairs, and having one as a mother.
Richard Thomas’s lyrics pick up the same humour, and rhymes like “Made in Dagenham/Get your cat spayed in Dagenham” have an off-kilter charm. Rupert Goold’s sparky direction is full of visual gags – four mechanics beetling on in mop top wigs – and keeps the story fluid with the help of Bunny Christie’s refreshingly original set, which breaks with musical theatre naturalism to house interiors and factories in the a space divided by huge grids of metal machine parts.
Goold’s sparkiness can overflow into flippancy, wheedling the audience through the political scenes with bowler hatted dance routines. But he lets the machinists loose on Richard Bean’s book with rather less frivolity. Bond girl with RADA acting credentials Gemma Atherton is a gently naturalistic Rita, propped up by a lovely and rather more vividly characterised female supporting cast. The factory boss’s wife and unlikely feminist heroine Lisa (Naomi Frederick) is hilarious and brittle, as she chaotically subverts her husband's breakfasts as a means of rebellion . Sophie-Louise Dann is nuanced as Minister Barbara Castle, who mixes pragmatism with notes of idealism singing through. And Isla Blair is best of all as Connie, Rita’s mentor at the factory – she’s all steely warmth and embodies the personal sacrifices needed to be a feminist in a sexist world.
Made in Dagenham has a splash-quote from Caitlin Moran adorning its posters, which feels appropriate – there’s a peppy kind of pop culture feminism to its heroines, who are reluctant to identify as feminists at a time when the word hadn’t yet been systematically stripped of any unglamorous credentials by an unholy coalition of popstars and politicians. The thoroughly stylish production's plot briefly hangs on the hemline of a red Biba dress worn for Rita's rabble-rousing speech to the TUC. But the musical’s eventual message is a good one: the constant background grumble of the machinists' husbands that they are neglecting their families is answered with the message that some things are important enough to make sacrifices for.
If this musical doesn’t completely succeed, it’s because what it’s trying to do is impossible. The interactions of the TUC, government, factories, wider corporation and protesters are fantastically complex – a multiway power struggle whose natural state is gridlock. Although the Ford protesters were instrumental in the 1970 Equal Pay Act, their work wasn’t classed as skilled until 1984, and work in roles traditionally held by women is still held as worth less today. This production stitches these truths as telling details into a cleverly made, glamorous knees-up of a musical.