Championing the underdog (and British) musical….

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When you’re a champion, as I am, of original British musicals, you’ve sadly all too often got a lot of cheerleading to do. Just look at this weekend’s entries vying for the Olivier for Best Musical: all but one of them are imports from New York, on or off Broadway – Beautiful, Memphis and Here Lies Love, against the sole British entry Sunny Afternoon. And two of those four musicals – Beautiful and Sunny Afternoon – don’t have original songs, either, but are recycled pop jukeboxes (albeit superior ones).

madeindagenham-landscapeSomehow, and utterly unaccountably, Made in Dagenham failed to be nominated in the Best Musical category, and has limped away with just two nominations – for star Gemma Arterton and for Bunny Christie’s set design. The show is closing this weekend, to make way for another industrial workplace musical Kinky Boots, swapping the car factory of Dagenham for a shoe-making factory in Northampton, which arrives already festooned with Tony Awards.

Yet I’d honestly say that Made in Dagenham is the superior musical to Kinky Boots. When I reviewed the former for The Stage, I wrote, “The final number of the show is called ‘Stand Up’; this is a new British musical worth standing and cheering for, at last.”

And that’s what I – and a full Wednesday evening performance, open to the top of the house – duly did again last night at the Adelphi Theatre. I’ve now seen the show three times, and it just gets better. No, it’s not perfect – the show still, as I said the first time round, “lacks a killer tune of the take-home variety”; but it has tons of heart and a lot of craft.

It may owe a little too much to Billy Elliot, without the seamless staging, scenic and choreographic genius that illuminated that show so fantastically from Stephen Daldry, Ian MacNeil and Peter Darling respectively, but no one’s stinted here, either, in any of those departments, and Bunny Christie’s sets are a particular triumph of inventiveness, with their clever Airfix style panels and onstage production line.

It’s also performed with real panache and integrity by a cast that’s led by performers who feel shorn of musical theatre artifice; when’s the last time you saw a musical theatre leading man with a bit of a paunch, or a leading lady who exudes grit as well as glamour? Adrian der Gregorian and Gemma Arterton make both their characters utterly real; and they’re fantastically supported by a cast that also includes the wonderful Sophie Stanton, Sophie-Louise Dann, Isla Blair, Mark Hadfield and Naomi Frederick.

spend-spend-spendBy coincidence, there’s another British musical, also set in the 60s and based on a real-life events, at the Union at the moment: Spend Spend Spend, which originally opened at the Piccadilly in 1999, that also pulses with authentic life, but likewise failed on its original outing. It’s done, of course, on a rather different scale to the original, but it has a lot of integrity and feeling.

Both these shows deserve support. I’m sad that Made in Dagenham has failed to rally the town, though happy to see it going with a bang; perhaps one day it will have a Union revival to prove how good it really is.

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