How do you mark the 50th anniversary of a strike by women workers that paved the way for equal pay? By making a song and dance about it, of course! Which is what the talented young performers at Aberdeen’s Leading Lights theatre company will be doing next week, when they stage the West End musical Made In Dagenham.
And production team member Shona Smith says the show – at Aberdeen Arts Centre from Tuesday to Saturday – promises to be a fantastic night’s entertainment. With a message.
“It’s a great show. There are lots of musical numbers, from upbeat boppy ones to ballads, with humour thrown in,” she said.
Made In Dagenham follows the true story of female sewing machinists at Ford’s Dagenham plant, who went on strike in 1968, demanding equal pay with skilled male colleagues.
Their bitter struggle became a cause celebre of the day, attracting the high-profile support of Barbara Castle, the Employment Secretary in Harold Wilson’s Labour government.
Their action led directly to the Equal Pay Act of 1970, spearheading working rights for women.
Shona said: “It’s the 50th anniversary of the women’s strike action, so it’s topical to do it. These women came out of their comfort zone. They were workers but all of a sudden, they were fighting for equal rights and pay.
“If they hadn’t done what they did back in the day, for women nowadays, our lives could have been so different. They were the frontrunners. They stood up for women’s rights and equality, so it’s a great subject.”
Shona said the musical was not one of the best-known shows.
And that was one of the attractions for Leading Lights – whose members range in age from 14 to 18 – to take it on.
“You can stick to the usual stuff, which sells, or you can go out of your comfort zone and do something that is not as well known,” she explained. “That can make it harder to sell tickets, but if you don’t know it, it’s actually more reason to come to see it.
“Also, it’s a good way to see a show with professional quality at amateur prices.”
There are, of course, challenges for an amateur company staging a show that has graced the professional stage.
“For a start, I have to find nine sewing machines!” said Shona, who describes her role as “being a bit like a Blue Peter presenter” when it comes to making and sourcing props.
“I have tracked them down, but they are in London and getting them up here is costly.
“The challenge for the kids is dealing with the emotion and reality of the show.
“Some of the songs are quite touching, especially for women who are trying to strike a life-work balance, torn between trying keep a roof over their head, caring for a family and working at the same time.”
The 40-strong cast has been working hard to create a great night’s entertainment, said Shona.
“Youth theatre years ago used to be a bit pants,” she said. “But nowadays, the quality is excellent. We have had people before asking: ‘Is that really kids who are on that stage?’
“A lot of our members have been with us for a long time. They have come through from Ragamuffins, our primary-age group, so they have grown up with it. They know what’s expected of them and the commitment that’s involved.”
Shona’s own daughter, Brooke, 18, has particularly large shoes to fill – taking on the role of strike leader Rita O’Grady, who was played by Gemma Arterton in the West End. It’s a central role, as Rita struggles to lead the strike while she has a husband and kids at home who are feeling neglected and just want her to be mum and wife.
“This will be her last show with Leading Lights after all these years, and it’s actually her first principal role,” said the proud mum.
“She’s waited a long time, but she’s doing it well – I know I’m biased, but she knows it’s a big commitment. She’s on stage a lot and she’s aware of the standards we have and that she has big boots to fill, with past principal members going on to West End stuff.”
That includes actress Jenna Innes, who toured with the musical A Spoonful Of Sherman and is set for a glittering musical theatre career.
Shona, who is a health care support worker at Aberdeen Maternity Hospital, says the experience of taking part in the show, and being part of Leading Lights, is valuable for all of the members of the company.
“It gives them great learning skills,” she explained. “Even if they don’t head to London, setting their sights on a career in this industry, it gives them life skills. Things like being able to stand up and make a PowerPoint presentation at university, or going on to be teachers. It’s great for them to be part of that.”
And she is confident audiences will enjoy the experience too.
“Throughout the city, we have a recognised name, so people know when they come to see the show it is a really good standard we are producing,” said Shona.
“Hopefully audiences will think they’ve had value for money and that it’s a show they have enjoyed.
“It’s got a great range of music and a good storyline, based on those real-life events. It’s not a doom-and-gloom musical, but it’s not cheesy either. There’s humour in there.
“So hopefully people will come out thinking they’ve had a great night’s entertainment.”
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