On the way to the Queens Theatre for our first day of tech rehearsals for Made in Dagenham, my eyes are drawn to the leading article on the Guardian homepage: “UK women still far adrift on salary and promotion as gender pay gap remains a gulf”. As we begin the sound check, each actor in turn either reciting their lines or itemising what they had for breakfast, I ask if anyone has seen the story? How, nearly fifty years after the 1968 strike about which our show is written, and the subsequent Equal Pay Act of 1970, have we still not achieved gender pay equality?
Every day, this show resonates both within the performance and in the world outside. Its first staging since its West End premiere, our version of Made in Dagenham was genuinely made in Dagenham: we rehearsed at Studio 3 Arts in Barking, we are performing it in Hornchurch, just five miles from the Ford Dagenham factory, and many of our cast and creative team have strong connections with the area. A lot of audience members have either worked or know people who worked at Ford Dagenham. The connections that they make with the story are evident in each performance, with a variety of responses to our protagonist Rita’s final speech: a lone man raising his hand, generating a ripple of excitement, surprise, momentum; elderly audience members making the effort to stand up; nods, murmurs, and shouts of agreement; even female audience members bringing placards demanding equality, similar to those featured in our show.
This is the first time I have done a play where I have had the opportunity to meet the people about whom the play is written. Talking to Eileen Pullen and Gwen Davis, two of the women who inspired the character of Rita (who is a fictionalised amalgamation of four real-life strikers), I was struck by how remarkably unassuming they were. Eileen’s family said that, prior to the film of Made in Dagenham (on which the musical is based) being made, she hadn’t ever mentioned the crucial role she had played in the 1968 strike. In the play it is my character, Lisa, who recognises at the time the fact that Rita is making history, and later the politician Barbara Castle who asks the audience, and really the wider world, to give these women their rightful place in history alongside the Suffragettes.
The very fact that we call it ‘his-story’ still has a bearing on the stories we are telling, and the protagonists being portrayed. It was refreshing to be asked at my audition, “which character do you see yourself as?” as I am generally auditioning for the only female character vaguely my age. On more than one occasion I have been the only female in the cast. A friend who saw Made in Dagenham last week initially assumed that my character was merely ‘the wife of the boss’, as this is the initial context in which we meet her. He talked of his excitement when he realised that Lisa in fact becomes a significant catalyst on Rita’s journey, operating independently from her husband, and we see how the two women empower each other in different ways.
Bechdel Theatre takes the Bechdel Test and applies it specifically to the stage, asking: ‘Are there two women onstage? Are they talking to each other? About something other than a man?’ The movement encourages its followers to #BringAFeministFriend to spread their message beyond theatre professionals and regulars. Of course what we see onstage reflects the society we live in, and there are plenty of current non-theatre initiatives, such as Everyday Sexism, and Sisters Uncut, that demonstrate how far we still have to go.
There continue to be frank examples that demonstrate the distance we need to go before we achieve something resembling gender equality: recently a female theatre director Femi Fangunwa was rejected by Windsor Fringe Festival because ‘a male director would be better for this play’, and a female receptionist was sent home without pay by finance company PwC for refusing to wear high-heeled shoes.
The parallels between 1968 and now are palpable: the gloomy prospects of EU entry in 1968, and now our self-inflicted Brexit decision; the pound slipping on the foreign exchange, just as it was in 1968; backbench revolts against the Labour leader, both then and now; the 1968 Commonwealth Immigration Act limiting inflow by imposing a voucher scheme, and Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson’s Brexit campaign calls for a points-based immigration system; Enoch Powell’s racist Rivers of Blood speech, which many agreed with, and the current, horrifying rise in post-Brexit hate crimes, including the violent murder of Arkadiusz Jozwik, not far from here, in Harlow, Essex.
As long as the themes of a supposedly period piece like Made in Dagenham echo with us with such clarity, we should look to make changes both within our industry and the society it reflects.
Made in Dagenham is at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until September 17, and at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich from September 21 until October 15.