WITH just days to go until a general election of unprecedented acrimony and confusion, what better way to escape than by attending a happy-ending musical put on by such an energetic and infectiously cheerful cast as King’s Company?
Few in the enthusiastic audience could actually remember the period in which the action was set (1968), but there were plenty of indicators with which to help interpret the plot. In particular, the central theme of sexism and the role of women was given heavy prominence during the first half and must have felt utterly alien to the actors. The strength of the (old fashioned) trade unions and the Wilson Labour government’s dependence upon them was yet to be challenged by Margaret Thatcher.
Harold Wilson (a Gannex-coated, pipe-sucking Jamie Layfield, with a commendable stab at a Yorkshire accent) and his three civil servant Aides (Thomas Bateman, Ben Kittoe and Tabitha Udy) provided some comic verbal relief and a contrast to the numbers and noise of the factory workers, Westminster v Essex. Although the historical Harold Wilson was not opposed to modernisation, he is seen shelving the tricky issue of women’s rights onto the very competent shoulders of Barbara Castle.
Victoria Davis was a splendid Mrs Castle: strong, no-nonsense, capable, intelligent. Victoria’s diction was beautifully clear, as was her singing voice. She commanded the stage and revealed a fully rounded characterisation. A confident Yorkshirewoman, she had no need to flaunt her Oxford degree, unlike the downtrodden Lisa Hopkins (Abigail Hughes) who, trapped in her marriage to the Boss Mr Hopkins (William Pinto), was no better at standing up to the sadistic schoolteacher Mr Buckton (George Jobe) than machinist Rita with her son Graham (William Hurst). However, just as happened to the factory women, Lisa was emboldened by the cause and she went backstage at the TUC conference to lend Rita her red Biba dress.
Rita O’Grady herself (Francesca Bisson) handled the fairy-tale transformation from inarticulate, nervous sewing machinist to dynamic orator very skilfully. By the time it came to the big TUC conference, we were looking forward to watching this happen again, and were as much under her spell for this climax as her stage audience was, and with them couldn’t help but “Stand Up” and applaud. The fact that this was a historical event, even allowing for artistic licence, made it even more heart-warming. Contemporary photographs of the Dagenham strike displayed in the Recital Hall were a clever way to introduce the historical setting.
Rita’s family life provided a spotlight not only on the views towards housewives in the late 1960s but also the strains that strikes and women’s liberation more generally put on marriages and homes. We could see the effect on the children Graham and Sharon (Hetty Guyer/ Amy Bungard) who had to be sent to a grandmother when Eddie could no longer cope. Eddie O’Grady (Freddie Bowles) was a sympathetic character who was floundering under the mocking taunts of his former mates, Barry and Stan (Sam Black and Ben Kittoe). Introduced as a forgetful and unintentionally thoughtless man, he was at sea when his wife was no longer at the helm at home. His letter saying he was leaving with the children was an emotional scene, at which point the drama might have ended a tragedy rather than a triumph.
Another scene of personal sadness within the bigger picture of the strike was the death from cancer of Connie Riley. Grace Curcio traced the development of her character from start to finish with great maturity and authority. Hers was another stand-out performance. Strong and individual, her illness and death were felt deeply by Rita, as also by Monty, the women’s shop steward. Orlando Squires made him a progressively warmer and more involved character, and by the time he was weeping at the deathbed of the woman he secretly loved, the auditorium was drawn in to his grief in silent empathy.
The women and girl machinists, foul-mouthed, feisty and with quantities of attitude to compensate for their lack of vocabulary, were a band to be reckoned with. Olivia Thomas (who played Beryl), Florence Nell, Georgina Schosland, Alexandra Bowerman, with Amelia Merrick, Tabitha Udy, Martha Lansley and Charlotte Connolly were magnificent in their energy and sassiness.
Similarly, the factory men posed, swaggered and were appropriately physical in their blue overalls on the two specially built Dagenham towers. Sam Black, Thomas Bateman, William Hutton, George Jobe, Takudzwa Gomera, Sam Trueman and other actors multi-tasking were all suitably macho. Ensemble players and dancers too numerous to mention individually, many with multiple roles, all put their hearts into the show; they were movement and musically perfect in what was a real company performance.
Mention of which must include the razzmatazz of the Cortina and American numbers. Mr Tooley, the American owner of Ford played by a strutting and entitled Alfie Peckham, arrived in a spectacular helicopter surrounded by spangled and pom-pom bearing dancers. It provided a joyful interlude of sheer West End excess and escapism. The dance and movement (Natasha Hobbs, assisted by Victoria Davis, Year 13, see also above) was tight and full of energy throughout. Many congratulations also go to the set designers and constructors, costumes, back stage, sound and lights, the highly professional band conducted by Neil Porter-Thaw and the huge number of helpers.
At King’s Ely, we have come to expect incredibly high standards of performance as the basis for creative interpretations and inspired ideas. A revolving stage used to be viewed in awe. For these actors it was business as usual. A long show (2hrs 40mins) with 5 performances over 4 days – bring it on! Nick Huntington has our thanks and admiration.