Go slow at Dagenham. The musical based on the film about a pay dispute in the 1960s starts as a sluggish mire of twee simplicities. We’re in Essex. Grumbling Cockney wage slaves inhabit cramped but spick-and-span council flats. Russet-cheeked kiddiwinkies are scolded and cosseted by blousy matriarchs married to emotionally reticent beer guts.
The doll’s-house infantilism of Rupert Goold’s production is challenged by designer Bunny Christie whose set is an essay in conceptualism. She uses a vast plastic grid, like an unmade Airfix kit, to suggest the Dagenham car plant. It’s ingenious and intricate but irritating too. Trouble brews at the factory when the executives downgrade the leather workers, who stitch the car seats, to the level of unskilled labour. Everybody out. The strike begins and the show catches fire.
Rita O’Grady, a reluctant Joan of Arc, confronts her bosses at an arbitration meeting. If upholstery is unskilled, she argues, then anyone can do it. Even you. She asks them three easy questions about handling a sewing machine, and their evasive, fumbling answers expose them as arrogant dimwits. Result! It’s a moment of theatrical magic that brings a kick of joy to the heart and a prickle of moisture to the tear ducts. The show never falters after this and it develops into a neo-religious ceremony, a sung Mass extolling the virtues of solidarity and political activism.
Gemma Arterton (Rita) does well in the lead role but she’s more confident as an actor than as a singer. She’s outclassed by two dazzling cameos. Sophie-Louise Dann, as Barbara Castle, invites the female strikers to her gilded Whitehall apartment where she hands out tea like the Duchess of Devonshire, only grander. The role of Harold Wilson becomes a sensational piece of comic theatre in the hands of Mark Hadfield, previously an unremarkable RSC stalwart, who reveals himself as a world-class clown with a Chaplinesque talent for making small physical gestures insanely funny. Apologies to the others but he’s the star here. So good is Hadfield that the creative team should have recognised his brilliance and amplified his role in the second act where he gets little more than a handful of banal and un-Wilsonian quips. It’s not too late to rejig the script and give the show more balance.
The only false note is Goold’s decision to indulge his hatred of America with a flimsy caricature of Ford’s overseas management as a gang of boastful gun-slinging Texan bumpkins. This dated visual aphorism perpetuates the vice of bullying parochialism that it seeks to censure. And it’s rude too. Yanks buy stacks of tickets in the West End. Why not be nice to them? My gut instinct tells me Dagenham will do all right. As an unexpected bonus, its portrayal of Old Labour will chime with current perceptions of the people’s party. Wilson and Castle are revealed as a couple of vain, clever, hypocritical schemers who exploit the workers in order to preserve their own careers and livelihoods.
At the Wanamaker Theatre there’s a play with a tricky name and a grisly narrative. ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore takes its title from the final line, delivered by a prurient churchman, and its vicious wording reflects the brutal and shameless attitude of the writer, John Ford, towards the theatre and towards life. Ford was one of the Bard’s greatest devotees and the play brims with quotes, homages and references.
The main character, Giovanni, is a Hamlet-esque moper who faces a choice that would make any decent man hesitate for eternity: he loves his sister, Annabella, who feels likewise. Their forbidden affair, as with Romeo and Juliet, leads to an orgy of bloodletting. At the dénouement the floorboards are literally oozing with claret that drips and weeps into the gangways. Michael Longhurst’s production is hideously enthralling, often very funny, and entirely believable. Even the final scene, where a human heart skewered on a dagger is thumped — zoink — into the table of a cardinal’s banquet, never descends into comic charlatanry. A real treat.
And the theatre itself is a minor miracle. Arranged as a decorative, three-dimensional horseshoe, it’s amazingly compact and petite. The adroit proportions make the ceiling, which is barely 18 feet above your head, feel as far away as summer clouds. It’s like walking into Catherine de Medici’s jewellery box. The Globe’s plan is to showcase Jacobean theatre here but I wonder if it might expand the programme a little, and allow more than one performance a day. This gorgeous enclosure would be ideal for chamber concerts, illustrated lectures, political hustings, stand-up comedy, conjuring displays, clairvoyancy sessions, darts matches, cage-fighting, knobbly-knee competitions and unplugged gigs by ageing rock gods. A time machine like this needn’t restrict itself to bringing the 17th century into the present day. It might also transport our freak shows into the Jacobean world.
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