Much like the epithet ‘the best David Bowie album since “Scary Monsters”,’ describing a show as ‘the best British musical since “Matilda”’ is becoming one of those platitudes that sounds a bit less enthusiastic every time it’s trotted out.
Nonetheless: ‘Made in Dagenham’ is the best British musical since ‘Matilda’, a funny, messy, surprisingly idiosyncratic movie adaptation that’s powered by a lot of heart, a lot of jokes, a fair few clichés and a fantastic performance from screen star Gemma Arterton.
That said, your love of Rupert Goold’s production is likely to hinge less on Arterton’s sweet, sassy, self-doubting Rita – reluctant leader of the 1968 sewing machinists strike at the Ford plant in Dagenham – and more on Mark Hadfield’s unabashedly broad portrayal of Labour PM Harold Wilson.
Barely present in the film, here the ludicrous, ineffectual Wilson represents the acme of the anarchic humour that playwright Richard Bean has injected into his very free adaptation of the 2010 film. It's very silly, and wryly nostalgia for Old Labour and the foibles of the Britain that 58-year-old Bean grew up in – the ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ writer has unmistakably imposed himself on the show.
It’ll be up to you whether you think the Bean-sourced silliness compliments, undermines or makes up for the more conventional main story of Rita and her colleagues, who strike for equal pay after Ford downgrades its female machinists to ‘unskilled’. Clichés abound: sassy Essex ‘girls’ with lovably incompetent husbands; deep-and-meaningful conversations on park benches; a key character who dies of cancer; a believe-in-yourself-and-you-can-do-anything feminism lite message. Earnestness isn’t Bean or lyricist Richard Thomas’s forte, and they often handle it clunkily.
But if you’re onboard with the jokes, there are easily enough to see you through even the most po-faced sections. And if you’re not into the gags, well there’s still the fabulous Arterton: she lights up the stage in a very un-Hollywood way, poised but modest with an in-the-moment vulnerability and lovely, quavery singing voice. It’s not a showy performance, but it’s an impressive, impassioned one, and certainly proves once and for all that she’s no lightweight.
For me, ‘Made in Dagenham’s mix of lumbering big-heartedness and wild facetiousness worked better than it had any right to do. It’s true that David Arnold and Richard Thomas’s peppy pop/soul numbers songs could be catchier – though a noble exception goes to wonderful first half opener ‘This is America’, a psychotically OTT stab of self-aggrandising pomp rock delivered magnificently by Steve Furst’s bastard US factory boss. But the songs are all at least pleasant, Goold’s production is stylish and zippy, and there’s a wonderful Airfix-style set from Bunny Christie.
My head tells me there’ll be a new best British musical since ‘Matilda’ along in a year or two; my heart doesn’t really care – its still enjoying the afterglow of this wonky gem, unabashedly made in London.