Since 1925, the Norwich and Norfolk Operatic Society have put on an annual musical production (with a brief break for World War II), with its members making up the cast and crew. 2020 is no exception: Made in Dagenham came to the Norwich Theatre Royal for a 5-day run. The show was fantastically produced and performed with heart; a true testament to the importance of passion and community in theatre.
The story follows Rita O’Grady, a mother of two and a skilled seamstress at the Ford car factory in Dagenham. Set in 1969, it follows the pioneering strikes the female workers undertook to fight for equal pay. Exploring sexism in all its guises, from simple domestic expectations to fundamental workplace discrimination, Made in Dagenham represents a diverse spectrum of women. Mothers, daughters, older generations and children, as well as touching on class divisions and the impact this has on perceptions of sexism are all discussed.
Holly Graham, playing the protagonist role of Rita O’Grady was especially strong. Her calm presence filled the stage, reflecting the heroine that the movement, and the production, needed. Other excellent performances included Matilda Chitty as Sandra Beaumont. She perfectly fitted into the 60’s style of the show, with her outfits and attitude encapsulating the tone of the performance. The character of Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson was excellently portrayed by Nick Bird. Infectious energy and humour, Bird allowed the audience to poke gentle fun at the ridiculousness of male-dominated politics.
Above all, the production soared in ensemble pieces. The factory scenes, full of life, energy and camaraderie were particularly noteworthy. The opening number of ‘Made in Dagenham’ and the call to action of ‘Everybody Out’ were irresistible. While the second act opening ‘This is America’ did seem to lack to polish and precision of other numbers, it’s energy and enthusiasm was impossible to ignore. As their name suggests, Norwich and Norfolk Operatic Society produced faultless singing and vocals. Brought to life by the live band, not a single not was off tune, and everything was delivered with commitment, colour and charm.
To call the production ‘amateur’ would be doing it a disservice. The scenery and costumes were spot-on, and the props were outstanding in their quiet precision. From full sewing machines to a full-size Ford Cortina car, the stage managing was a huge strength of the production.
While the story centred on issues of sexism, the theme of community and belonging were unexpectedly powerful. The characters were all inherently likeable and got on regardless of age, class or appearance. In the opening number, the cast singing proudly about their (less than perfect) city was genuinely moving. The energy and community of the company reflected the tone of the show perfectly. Their excitement and passion for the production was palpable, and it was clear that their time on stage meant something to them. The diversity in ages and body types on stage was fantastic to see, and was fundamental to the sense of community and openness in the ensemble.