The curtain rises – to reveal the title still spelled out as it was! How is this possible! Oh, because they are giant Lucite block letters actually on the stage and in the house set. Big block letters used as random set pieces. Just like next to the main character’s bed and in her kitchen and pantry and stuff. Letters. In future scenes, random ‘A’ and ‘E’ 5-foot blocks will appear on the stage. I would love if someone explained why. My guess is because they wanted to distract us from thinking about how bad this show is.
You need a compelling reason to turn a story into a musical. That is step 1. It can’t just be because you want songs in your story. This show satisfied step 1. It’s a great idea for a musical! But step 2 is vital: The music and lyrics need to work. The music needs to enhance the storytelling, not replace it, and it definitely cannot drag the story down. Dagenham’s music brought the whole show crashing down.
It starts with Gemma Arterton, who may have been a Bond girl at one point but will now forever be haunted by “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters”, at home with her oaf of a husband and her two little kids. She’s singing a song repeating that if you want anything done, you should ask a busy woman. And she irons and cleans and cooks and stuff. It sets the stage for the time period well, the height of women as housewives, but it doesn’t do anything for the story. The song is too lame, in lyrics and pacing, to open a show. Luckily, even though Gemma isn't much of a singer, she has a lovely stage presence (and deserves better).
At breakfast, Gemma, as Rita O’Grady, tells her aspiring doctor of a young daughter to remember that girls are nurses, not doctors. Good start to the day! The book writer obviously meant for this opening remark to allow us to track Rita’s journey from brainwashed subordinate and housewife to brave gender equality pioneer. Great idea. However, we don’t see such a journey at all. The play shows Rita as timid and complacent in this struggle, and then all of a sudden she’s giving a rousing speech to Ford execs. There is absolutely no journey, no growth. Zero to sixty in half an act.
Of course it’s wonderful when Rita does stand up for women’s rights, but it comes out of nowhere. This is the main point of this show, her journey and her struggle, and it is missing. Any semblance of character development is hard to notice. And then all of a sudden Rita herself is leading the strike, going to neighboring towns to get their factory workers to strike with the Dagenham girls (it’s girls in this show, never women, which is important to demonstrate part of the struggle, but I don’t actually think this was deliberate).
The big ‘let’s all go on strike song’ is one of the saddest parts of the show. It’s the end of Act One, and it goes on for a good 10 minutes, but it’s completely lacking in energy, in wit, in anything positive. Rita is on top of moving stairs, singing ‘Everybody out!’ (the name of the song) over and over. People are dancing and holding signs and stuff below her, but it feels like nothing is happening. ‘Everybody Out’ works a few times when the accompanying lyrics are indeed about striking, but mostly it feels like advice for the audience.
I may have groaned the most during Act Two’s obligatory Things Are Getting Hard song. The strike is hurting everyone, and the girls are losing hope. So they sing a song called – I’m not kidding – “Storm Clouds Montage”. Characters say things to each other, different interactions occur, and in between each spotlight, the chorus sings “Storm clouds on the horizon, tension in the town.” Does it get any triter than that? It doesn’t. And this prolonged number is pretty much this line repeated over and over and overrrrrr again as other crap happens but you don’t even realize it because you are too stunned by this awful lyric that you know everyone thought was super sophisticated.
I would direct you to youtube videos of some of these songs, but just take the titles or lyrics I provide and try to sing them, and you will pretty much have the right melody on your first try. That’s apparently how this show was written. During most musical numbers, I was struck by how similar the songs were to those too long, forced-rhyme poems that bridesmaids and sisters always recite at bridal showers. You know the type. “As soon as we saw you and Dave together, we knew you would love each other through all kinds of weather.” That’s what this music is like. A lyric from one of these songs is (as far as I can remember) “I have no doubt, I know what this is all about.” They also rhyme ‘loads’ with ‘sod’ in a repeating motif. I have never groaned so much. Even during the Spice Girls musical, I was more in awe of its awfulness than in pain. Not the case here.
I don’t know how this music got the green light. Aside from the trite, childish lyrics, the music offers no new melodies. It’s all familiar. Worse yet, too many songs end with a crescendo into a key change, the most well-known device for tricking listeners into thinking a song is moving and powerful. They double up on the end-of-song power punch by having one of the girls belt some riffs all the freaking time, another trick. Both of these at the same time just look super desperate.
The book is a big old mess too. It makes me so sad that this wasn’t edited at all. This show is a first draft script, I am telling you. There are wayyy too many storylines occurring: 1) the strike, 2) Rita’s marital problems because her man isn’t okay with her fight, 3) Rita’s son being abused at school, 4) a Ford executive’s wife being bored as a housewife, 5) who ALSO has an abused son in the school, 6) the prime minister and his cabinet trying to stop the strike, 7) a new Secretary appointed to deal with the strike, 8) one of the girls dying of cancer one night after diagnosis. What the hell. First, obviously, the cancer bit was not done well at all; there is too much going on for that to feel anything but cheap. Also, there is absolutely NO reason for the school abuse thread. None at all. It’s such a waste of story telling that I still can’t believe it made the cut. It allows Rita to meet the exec’s wife, who helps their cause so much by lending Rita a dress to wear at her big speech, but they could have met much more simply. I can’t believe how stupid. The same goes for the prime minister. His only real purpose is to get cheap laughs from the audience by walking hunched over and making easy gross jokes. I had hopes that the new Secretary of Fighting the Unions, a woman, would help the factory workers in their fight, but she ends up being on the wrong side because she’s part of the government. Meaning, her plot line was entirely unnecessary. Her opposition doesn’t spur the strikers on even more or anything. It’s just empty.
For a show about fighting sexism, it’s surprisingly sexist. You could tell it was directed by men and that the book, music, and lyrics were also written by men. Somehow, they make a show about fighting for gender equality sexist. It’s quite a feat. In the first factory scene, when we get to meet all the female workers, all they talk about is sex. One woman asks everyone if they are ‘getting any’, and they make jokes and talk about it because all women can ever talk about is men, right? Apparently that’s what these writers think. It IS the only thing worth talking about right girls! Ugh. Worse, when they have their chance of telling the union leaders all the changes they want, their list goes: “equal pay, chocolate that doesn’t make you fat, perfume, the same rights as the male workers, and OH! more chocolate!” I’m not joking. Later, Rita gets a big tearjerker number when her husband leaves her because obviously the husband will leave once the wife starts doing something important that isn’t making him dinner. She cries instead of using some of her newfound strength to convince her husband and everyone else that the fight is important and that he should make his own dinner. It’s offensive that this tearjerker ballad is expected because it’s a female protagonist, NOT because of sexism back then but of sexism now. In other shows, male characters facing important struggles rarely get the tearjerker ballad about how nothing is important without their wives, yet for female characters it is nearly obligatory. I am sick of it.
What pushed me over the edge was the opening Act Two number “This is America”. Because the strike is causing the factory to lose money, the American Ford executives have to come over. They sing a song about how Americans get shit done and how English people, women, shorter men, and anyone who isn’t the main exec is a ‘faggot’. The guy says faggot at least 10 times. It is awful. But worse is the song, written solely for cheap laughs (that sadly they get a lot of) by making fun of Americans. It’s beyond offensive, not to me as an American but as a person who is alive on this earth. It’s one thing to make good-natured fun of Americans, with jokes as stale and tired as vegan jokes but good-natured and harmless mostly. It is quite another thing to include lyrics that actually are harmful, that forgo the promise to be good-natured and instead rely on ignorance. I don’t understand how the producers haven’t changed these lyrics yet. An army tank rolls in, all the chorus girls in camo bikinis holding machine guns. Gay jokes are made, women are reinforced as being for show. And at one point, the exec actually sings, “Our cops have guns and will blow you away.” Now. At this time. When cops are actually killing unarmed civilians with those guns, this piece of shit song in a piece of shit show IS STILL SINGING THIS LINE.
I wanted to like this show. Even though it was not good, I always always want plays to succeed. Even though it wasn't great, I was still planning to tell people "Eh it's not great but you'll probably enjoy yourself." But how the people behind this show could leave these lyrics in this song, knowing what is going on in America, I don’t understand. The producers never responded to my complaints about this line and others like it, and now I have no qualms calling bullshit. This is not okay. Another unarmed black man was shot by cops yesterday, did you see that? It’s in the news over here even. But don’t let that keep “Made In Dagenham” from laughing about it. And no, the lyrics in this song are not presented as a serious reflection on our society. They are included for laughs. And yes, the audience laughs. Shame on everyone involved until they make changes.
Also, that random maid? She shows up in most scenes in the background, cleaning things or just listening. It makes no sense. Piece. Of. Crap.