UP THE WOMEN, UP THE WORKERS…AND A JIG FROM HAROLD WILSON
It was not until the second-act opener that I thought it might fulfil the hope. That hope has been considerable: here’s a story (formerly a film, by the barely credited screenwriter William Ivory) about unfairness defeated, working-class women winning equality in the barely-vanished world of 1968. 200 underpaid seat-cover seamstresses held to ransom – at great risk – 5000 men’s jobs in their tight community, and defied the vast American Ford empire itself. Their victory included making Equal Pay the policy of the TUC for (rather shamingly) the first time ever.
A good start. And this musical team has every chance: script by the unconquerable comedy king Richard Bean, lyrics by Richard Thomas of Jerry Springer The Opera fame, Gemma Arterton as Rita the strikers’ leader, design by Bunny Christie (who rather brilliantly interprets the whole thing as a giant Airfix model, perfect metaphor for the factory process); music by David Arnold of Sherlock and Bond fame, and direction by the ever-flamboyant Rupert Goold. Huge West End money, hurled at a heartwarming tale of feminism and workers’ rights. What’s not to like?
Yet the first half , dammit, left me alarmingly cold. There’s a cheerful opening hymn “Busy Woman” to the working mother (could sense Jenni Murray beaming in the row behind), with Arterton endearingly honest and unshowy as ever and Adrian der Gregorian (better every year!) as her husband Eddie. Cue some spirited banter among the sewing women, and scornful, elegantly staged contrasts with the farting idle Union leaders, foxy management, and Mark Hadfield as Harold Wilson neatly ensconced in the cleft stick of his premiership, unions at his throat and production down. His opening number does involve one of the funniest dances of the year, which is something,; but the pace of the (long) first half flags. Especially when you remember that other recent strike musical, The Pajama Game: too many songs just aren’t quite up to it, and only one of them – a fine lament for the horror of Labour Party politics by Isla Blair as Connie the convenor – fulfils the proper function of a musical number in propelling the emotional and narrative line forward. Others simply seem to stop it dead.
Some of the dialogue is pleasingly Bean-ish (especially the exasperation of the manager’s bored wife Lisa stuck out in Essex : “But I bought you a horse!” “It doesn’t like me!” . But the first time Rita is properly allowed to catch fire is in the confrontation with management over skilled status “Could you do my job? What sort of needle would you use for leatherette?”
It sparks at last with that Act 2 opener, when it becomes clear that it is indeed Richard Thomas of Jerry S fame who is writing the lyrics: Steve Furst’s number as Tooley the American Ford boss is a magnificently, arrogantly, eloquently offensive portrait of US contempt for Britain, spectacularly staged (Gooldian!) with tanks, marines and fireworks. I long for a Broadway transfer and the affronted horror of East Coast liberals. There is also – as Tooley turns the screw on the impoverished strikers and laid-off husbands – a very fine and touching ensemble “Storm Clouds” montage which also makes the night worth it.
But as it winds on through domestic jeopardy and momentary heartbreak to Rita’s grand TUC conference catharsis, at least two other numbers – not least an utterly pointless one for Sophie Louise Dann’s oddly unconvincing Barbara Castle – slow it down again. Damn. I wanted to throw the stars around for this all- British, liberal-hearted show, but can’t. Not quite. Never mind: others will. There was plenty of laughing on the first night, and an emotional killer punch when they brought on the real, elderly strikers of 1968 to take a bow…
Box office 0844 412 4651 to 2015