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Ford strikers’ moment of history lives on through Queen’s Theatre’s heartwarming tribute

PUBLISHED: 13:38 03 August 2016 | UPDATED: 13:56 03 August 2016

Queen's Theatre promoting its new musical Made in Dagenham. (Left to right) Wendy Morgan, Angela Bain, Sophie-May Feek, Sioned Saunders, original strikers Eileen Pullen and Gwen Davis, Sarah Scowen, Daniella Bowen, Elizabeth Rowe and Martina Isibor. Picture: Mark Sepple

Queen's Theatre promoting its new musical Made in Dagenham. (Left to right) Wendy Morgan, Angela Bain, Sophie-May Feek, Sioned Saunders, original strikers Eileen Pullen and Gwen Davis, Sarah Scowen, Daniella Bowen, Elizabeth Rowe and Martina Isibor. Picture: Mark Sepple

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A musical paying homage to an inspirational group of women whose actions paved the way to equal pay and working conditions for both sexes is returning to its east London roots.

Original strikers Eileen Pullen and Gwen Davis. Picture: Mark SeppleOriginal strikers Eileen Pullen and Gwen Davis. Picture: Mark Sepple

Made in Dagenham, a hit on the West End, is coming to Queen’s Theatre this month for its regional premiere, featuring a cast of 21 – the venue’s largest ever for an in-house production.

Launching artistic director Douglas Rintoul’s debut season, the show – a co-production with Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre – will tell the story of the sewing machinists who held a strike at Ford Dagenham in 1968, in protest at the gulf between their salaries and those of the men.

The women’s actions led to the eventual creation of the Equal Pay Act, which prohibited inequality in men and women’s pay and employment conditions.

Leading lady Daniella Bowen, 28, is gearing up to play Rita O’Grady, the musical’s fictional strike leader, who is based on some of the real women who inspired it.

A show of hands by the sewing machinists to indicate they wished to return to work. Picture: PAA show of hands by the sewing machinists to indicate they wished to return to work. Picture: PA

“It’s an incredible show to be part of,” said Daniella. “There are so many strong female characters.”

Made in Dagenham, which shares its name with the popular 2010 film, begins by introducing us to busy mum and wife Rita, who spends much of her time stitching car seats at Ford’s Dagenham factory.

Rita dedicates herself to her work, but when she and other female workers discover the depths of the gender gap – which stops them from earning skilled workers’ wages – she takes the fight to Ford, the unions and the heart of the government itself.

“Rita’s such a great character,” said Daniella.

Road to equal pay

The strike began on June 7, 1968, with the 187 women soon followed by machinists at Ford’s Halewood Body & Assembly Plant. When the car seat covers the women stitched ran out, the company was forced to halt all car production. The government intervened and the strike ended after three weeks, with the women’s pay increased. Their full demands were only fulfilled following a further strike in 1984. The 1968 action triggered the Equal Pay Act 1970.

“She hasn’t come from the most educated or privileged background, so to achieve the things she does is really cool.

“It’s very nerve-wracking, though I don’t have the pressure of trying to be one person as she’s an amalgamation of a lot of the ladies.

“It’s so important what they did.”

Rehearsals for the musical are in full swing, with the cast focusing on their research and character development before moving on to honing the dialogue and songs.

Cast members Elizabeth Rowe and Sioned Saunders with original strikers Eileen Pullen and Gwen Davis. Picture: Mark SeppleCast members Elizabeth Rowe and Sioned Saunders with original strikers Eileen Pullen and Gwen Davis. Picture: Mark Sepple

Six youth company members are taking part in the show, which will also see the actors play musical instruments such as the tambourine, accordion and piano.

“The rehearsals are going so well,” said Daniella. “We’re working quite fast through the script and Douglas is very thorough.

“Every single day we seem to achieve so much. I sometimes forget what I’m doing and start rocking out; it’s like, you actually have a job to do,” she laughed.

But what should audiences expect?

Gwen Davis (third from right) with her Ford Dagenham colleagues during an Easter bonnet celebration in the 1970sGwen Davis (third from right) with her Ford Dagenham colleagues during an Easter bonnet celebration in the 1970s

“It’s unbelievably funny, poignant and there are so many bits which are really heartfelt.

“Douglas wanted his version to be stripped back, focusing on the story.

“The audience will go on a journey; it will make them laugh and then cry.”

Made in Dagenham will run at Queen’s Theatre, Billet Lane, Hornchurch, from August 26- September 17. Call 01708 443333 or visit queens-theatre.co.uk.

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