Despite positive reviews the original West End production of "Made In Dagenham" had an unfortunately short life (one of several that season) which is an indication of how precarious and challenging mounting a musical and garnering an audience for it can be. Sometimes it is simply a matter of timing and I think it fair to say that this amateur production is timely indeed.
The plot is based on the real-life episode of the female population of the Dagenham Ford car plant rising up to demand equal pay in 1968. Centred around machinist Rita O'Grady, her family and her co-workers the musical deftly portrays the difficulties of such a venturing at that particular time (some may wonder if it is any easier to rectify similar disputes in the modern age).
The book by Richard Bean is lean and precise with barely an excessive moment throughout, although it is peppered with the occasional appropriate f-word. Humour is readily available throughout also and this is also true of the alternately witty and poignant lyrics of Richard Thomas. The music is by Grammy and Emmy-award winner David Arnold, who also composed the musical score for the original film on which the musical is based. Arnold's score has a fittingly 60s feel which is at once comfortable and nostalgic to the listener and he creates some musically exciting and stirring moments as well as some emotional ones. I hope "Made In Dagenham" is not his only foray into the musical world.
Paisley Musical & Operatic Society is one of those companies whose productions always aim far beyond the 'amateur' status and they are one of the (sadly) fewer who are willing to take risks with their choice of musical title. Indeed "Made In Dagenham" is certainly one of those. It is a musical which had a short run in London based on a small British film. It has never had a professional UK tour so, as a title, it is really quite unknown to most audiences. Thus selling such a show was an up-hill struggle from the off. But, nevertheless, PMOS elected to take on the challenge.
Artistically the gamble has paid off as the production can resolutely claim to be among the best type of so-called 'amateur' theatre (it's only amateur because the cast don't get paid, after all) and indeed is better than a number of professional productions I have witnessed.
Alasdair Hawthorn's direction is, typically, adroit and he is not one of those to stay safe with his choices, something which can be the worst aspect of 'amateur' theatre. Hawthorn is also well versed in the use of space and lighting, again aspects often overlooked in am-dram. The choreography of Marion Baird is another aspect that gels with the other aspects of the production and has nifty homages to the 60s throughout. Sean Stirling's musical direction is solid and he has molded the orchestra into an integral part of the fabric of the production.
There are times when the transitions could be handled more deftly and the sound levels could be adjusted to ensure the orchestra doesn't overpower the vocals at times, but these are really only minor quibbles in an otherwise sterling production which really has a rousing effect on the audience.
The casting of the production is probably the best I've seen on the amateur circuit with an ensemble who breathe vivacious life into each and every role onstage. Enterprisingly led by Carolyn Lowry as "Rita O'Grady" and featuring dynamic performances from, among others, Laura Moore as "Beryl" and Lindsey Ross as "Barbara Castle", the show is littered with enjoyable, energetic performances. And one has to mention the "Harold Wilson" of Raymond Morrison which is one of the many comedic highlights that run throughout the musical along with Blair Cruikshank's Trump-like "Mr Tooley" who delivers the rousing "This Is America" with glee.
A truly female-led show, but one that does not ignore the male element, "Made In Dagenham" has a dynamism and electricity amongst its cast that is rare and they are all, equally, the driving force (pardon the pun) of a punchy, principled musical that has much to say. Even today.
Given the impressive production it is inevitably sad to see that there were a number of empty seats in the auditorium. True, the musical may be a hard sell as discussed above, but it seems to be a growing trend in amateur theatre (hell, even modern productions are feeling it). We live in hard times and theatre is not a cheap night out, but without local support the amateur companies of this country are slowly fading into history.
Amateur theatre, in all its forms is an essential part of our artistic integrity and they are often the birthplace of a life-long love of the arts. They are more than entertainment: they are social groups, support networks and even a form of counsel. The shy person is encouraged to break out of their shell, the unconfident are given a the opportunity to give themselves a voice, an outlet for their imaginations.
The numerous groups that populate the British Isles are often bastions of theatre, keeping the art alive in areas that don't necessarily have access to professional, commercial theatre. They also keep older and less-performed works alive, be it 'straight' plays or musicals. How often is "The King And I" revived by a professional producer? Without these often and unfairly looked-down upon companies the very history of theatre would be confined to the dusty pages of some momentous tome in the libraries of historians.
Likewise these companies also take the risk of presenting a recent play or musical that may not have had the success it deserved in its first production but in doing so breathe new life into a work that otherwise would have have been dispelled to the gutter. As with "Made In Dagenham" part of the problem is familiarity - an unknown quantity is made known only by awareness. I'm sure as more and more productions pop up "Made In Dagenham" (and other similar "unknown" titles) will enter the popular field and future production will draw bigger and bigger audiences. But to that end these companies have to continue to exist and they can only do so with the support of the local (or not) audience. Theatre in all its forms enriches us and I urge all to take a similar risk as these companies take and once in a while buy a ticket (cheaper than a "professional" production in all cases) to a little-known show and go with an open mind. Who knows but that you may discover a new favourite play or musical?
For now ...