The Ford strikers led by Rita O’Grady (Holly Graham) – photo NNOS
This popular show started life as a film that depicted a fictionalised version of a very real and important bit of recent history. The Ford sewing machinist strike of 1968 was a milestone in progress towards a more equal society in the UK and merits celebration.
The 2010 film was generally well received with mixed reviews that told you more about the hangups of the critics than about the film and the issues it tackled. This production of the musical stage version by the Norfolk and Norwich Operatic Society gives a welcome opportunity to revisit the story.
You could be forgiven for mistaking this local amateur cast production for a well funded professional show, the quality throughout is very high. The singing, acting, costume, design and staging are all first class and give a lively and memorable version of this well-loved show.
The principals in this show combine a competent grasp of the singing required with convincing character acting in this multi-layered human drama. Holly Graham played the machinist Rita O’Grady who becomes the strike leader, with Craig Loxston as her husband Eddie and Korben White and Lottie Lake as her kids. Together they gave a convincing picture of a family fighting to stay together against the odds. Ian Chisholm stood out as the union convenor Monty, struggling to balance conflicting views.
The script gives a pithy, factory style earthiness to the dialogue in a decade where political correctness had yet to be invented. It may sound harsh to modern ears but gives an authentic insight to the social mores of the time and place. Beryl, played with blunt gusto by Michelle Unstead exemplifies the spirit of women in factories in the 1960s.
If you like a lot of music in your theatre show, this is one for you. I counted 22 songs. Personally I think the show would improve with some judicious pruning and shortening. The show takes some liberties with well known people no longer with us like Harold Wilson and Barbara Castle and it suffers from a rather downbeat ending, with some missed opportunities. In real history the Ford women’s strike was the catalyst for the introduction of equal pay laws, while Parliament and the unions failed to back Castle’s radical ‘In Place of Strife’ proposals to end debilitating strikes. It is not made clear as the show ends what the scale of their victory was, and personally I would rather like to have seen the unpleasant American (Alex Green) get his comeuppance. There are several little sub-plots and vignettes in the show that give hints of other stories, but are never followed through.
My criticisms are all directed at the original creators of the show, however, and not at the Norfolk and Norwich Operatic Society who give an excellent account of their talents and capabilities. These are all folks who have jobs and commitments that constrain their time, yet they came to the Theatre Royal with an admirably slick and well rehearsed show which they can rightly be very proud of. They convey the message of the show well, about how even in friendly working class communities long standing prejudices and unfairness must be dealt with however painful the process. Sadly this message is as relevant now as in 1968. The victims of prejudice may be a different group in society now, but these divisions continue to be promulgated. One clear message comes through from the show – wherever you work, join the union. We are stronger together.
© Julian Swainson 2020
Made in Dagenham by the Norfolk and Norwich Operatic Society is at Norwich Theatre Royal until Saturday 1st February 2020. Call 01603 630000 or go to norwich theatre.org to book