Preview: Made in Dagenham at the Oxford Playhouse

FourSevenTwo Productions’ all-out rendition of the feminist musical comes to Oxford in fifth week.

Source: Four Seven Two Productions

It’s a week before the first performance, and I’m told the choreography is being changed to incorporate rotations. Rotations? Is this a particular piece of dance terminology I’m unfamiliar with? Eventually it’s clarified – no, it’s an actual revolving stage. That’s perhaps the best way to summarise FourSevenTwo Productions’ version of Made In Dagenham – an exploration into “seeing how far we could go”.

At least the whole venture seems to be in capable hands. Miranda Mackay strikes me as an incredibly competent director, a fourth year with a whole host of theatre experience under her belt (being involved in 25 productions, six in a directing role). In the time I spend speaking to her she is constantly on the go, offering notes and occasionally handing out cheese and crackers (in what appears to be her secondary role of production motherfigure). Last term she directed the critically acclaimed Nice Guy at the BT, but this is a very different beast. The Michaelmas term production was heart-wrenching, intimate, with a skeleton cast and crew; Dagenham is a bright, bold, flashy production, operating with a cast numbering well into the twenties.

It’s a musical well suited to the Playhouse stage. In fact the script practically demands it – “you can tell it was designed for the West End because it has scenes with nine foldup tables”, she jokes. There are, she tells me, 464 lighting cues (a mere eight away from the company’s own name, which would have made for a particularly opportune coincidence). It’s a student production on a professional scale. In a way, it’s the only way this theatre can operate – you can’t have close intimacy in a 500-plus seat theatre. You need to go all out. Aside from the aforementioned rotating stage, the production has enlisted the help of the local youth – four children from the local theatre group to play Rita’s two children on a rotating basis. It’s a rarity for a student production, and apparently the kids do remarkably well, although as might be expected, some of the language within rehearsals needs to be toned down. And as someone who’s observed one too many dress-rehearsal day disasters, I’m pleased to see that an understudy has been planned and accounted for regarding one of the major roles.

The Playhouse is also unique in that it able to attract a slightly older audience from the local area – which holds particular significance within the context of Made in Dagenham. Although some of the characters are fictional, key players such as Barbara Castle and Harold Wilson feature heavily – and, of course, the 1968 Dagenham workers’ strike did indeed happen. Some of the audience will be old enough to remember the event – one actor says her nan from the East End is particularly excited to see the show – and that adds another layer of sensitivity to the production.

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Mackay tells me the message of the musical shines through as clear as it ever was – it’s hardly a play with a subtle message, it must be said, but unfortunately, equal work for equal pay is still a contentious issue in the current day. However, there have been some developments to account for this new age of feminism. Mackay is keen to emphasise how ‘stereotypical femininity’ and hardline feminism can go hand in hand – one shouldn’t have to change one’s appearance to be taken seriously. This core message is presented in the form of 60s glam, with some particularly stunning outfit combinations. I assume that the costume department are enjoying themselves? I’m told yes – they’re having a field day, with outfits made to order, Lisa’s dresses being a particular delight.

What I’m surprisingly struck by is just how refreshing it is to have an upbeat, optimistic show made in Oxford. Made in Dagenham is certainly a play which deals with serious themes, but it’s relentlessly idealistic (as Ella Tournes’ fantastic rendition of ‘An Ideal World’ demonstrates far more succinctly than I could ever put into words). In a sea of short, intense theatre and even more depressing real-world politics, it feels like an absolute relief – a feeling that the world might just be alright. After all, it’s managed it before.

But it’s also a performance of great emotional intensity – Mackay is adamant that you need the lows in order to appreciate the happiness of the plot, to understand the individual characters’ motivations just as much as you would in a smaller piece. It’s a curiously challenging work, which switches from scenes of high intensity to light-hearted humour at the drop of a hat – the highly emotional ‘We Could Have Had It All’, a song of breath-taking intensity, is juxtaposed with ‘Viva Eastbourne’, a surreal ensemble piece with prime minister Harold Wilson and dancing umbrellas.

I am lucky enough to not only get to speak with the director herself, but watch a choreography rehearsal of one of the main ensemble songs, ‘Payday’, from halfway through Act One. Although it’s not a song of intrinsic importance to the plot, I’m told it all contributes to the spectacle. Led by choreographer Hannah Klim with rigorous precision – “Did you straighten your back leg? You didn’t” – I’m able to see the whole thing take shape before me, resulting in a wonderfully crisp and energetic final form.

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With four weeks of rehearsals behind them, I’m also impressed just how easily each and every cast member manages to slip into character. An initial run-through of the dance is vastly improved upon simply by including everyone’s arrival at the party, with an energetic babble increasing the levels of energy tenfold. Some particularly rowdy male ensemble members steal the scene at points (with some cast members never quite seeming to break character), but it’s wonderful to see so many of the cast together in one scene, giving a flavour of what will be even in a scene which has relatively little plot importance.

Partway through the preview I’m invited to observe the blocking of a transitional scene between our heroine, Rita O’Grady (Maddy Page), and Barbara Castle (Ella Tournes). I feel incredibly privileged to view the close dynamic between actor and director, and even more so to see how easily the two step into their characters. There’s almost a conversational quality to the dynamic: when Mackay asks what Rita is feeling at this moment, Page launches into several sentences’ worth of rigorous analysis, detailing where her character was at the start of the play and how she might feel now. Previous scenes are brought in, examined, and utilised. It’s a technique which really seems to give the actors a chance to explore their characters fully – inquisitive, rather than prescriptive, giving autonomy to the actor – and by this stage of the rehearsal process, every character seems to come to life. It’s a genuine delight to see.

By this stage of the rehearsal process, everything finally seems to be coming together. For a production in its last week everything seems remarkably in place – large rotating set not included, which has to be put in on Sunday – with most of the cast off books and performances looking slick and well-practiced. All that’s left is to see the idealism become reality on the stage next week.

Made In Dagenham is at the Oxford Playhouse from 13 February.