Julie Sherry reviews the new musical telling of the Ford women's struggle
Made in Dagenham the film is excellent, but the collective experience of the musical — watching the performers live and alongside thousands of others — blurs the separation between a powerful but historical story and the live debates we are having in austerity Britain today.
This was amplified watching the show in a week in which some 700,000 workers, mainly women, had struck and 100,000 had marched over low pay. Sitting in the theatre you couldn’t help but wonder how many public sector workers were in the audience and how they might be feeling.
The musical is sharper than the film on Labour and the trade union bureaucracy. Labour politician Barbara Castle is portrayed more accurately.
Castle is shown as initially taking the side of the bosses and actively discouraging the strikers. She declares, “I don’t mind strikes when the Tories are in, but they’re pissing on their own doorstep!”
The actor rightly received huge whoops and cheers for her incredible vocal performance. Her barnstormer of a song shows a politician passionately fighting for the idea that equal pay was an unrealistic demand.
Two scenes in particular give a brutally scathing picture of the union bureaucracy. In one scene union officials are in conversation and it’s “Comrade this”, “Comrade that”, but in reality they are stitching up the workers through making deals with management.
In another comically choreographed and hyperbolic scene, officials are shown enjoying a piss-up at TUC conference.
This is contrasted with the pressures piled onto the working class woman thrust into leading a strike, and how the sexism of the time chastised her as a neglectful mother and wife.
But the verdict on the union leaders has a welcome subtlety too. Monty, the official for the factory, is pulled by pressures from the shop floor, but he is also influenced by his daily life with other officials and management.
There are brilliant moments that capture the insidious sexism and the gutsy challenging of it by working class women. One scene shows a disgustingly sexist male comedian down the local, spurting out line after line of moronic “the wife” jokes. The moment the angry mob of women workers hilariously turn on him coincides with confidence growing among them for the strike.
But perhaps the most interesting element is the song “Everybody Out!” The strike is declared and a miraculous staging manages to encompass the walkout and the women travelling to Liverpool to spread the action.
How they build momentum and solidarity in the strike is reminiscent of the experience of many current disputes, particularly the Doncaster Care UK and the St Mungo’s housing strikes. The momentum is shown as being carried on a wider political sense of fighting injustice, with frequent references to Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks.
The argument that comes through in the “Everybody Out!” scene—that there are critical moments in a strike where workers need to push outwards, and locate the key weak spot for the bosses and pour resources into hammering it—points to the need to demand support from union leaders in current disputes to win.
The imagery of war used in the next scene when we meet the US Ford’s CEO rightly conjures up the notion that the bosses will go to every length imaginable to smash a strike.
Don’t rob yourself of the opportunity to see these arguments—about Labour, trade union leaders, class and oppression—play out in a collective of thousands.