Made in Dagenham

Released in 2010, ‘Made in Dagenham’ is a gritty, evocative and warm-hearted film about the female workers at the Ford car plant in Dagenham, East London, who, in 1968, downed tools to demand equal pay for doing work of equal value. The machinists faced a barrage of patronising and often vicious opposition from every side – from the management at Ford UK, their paymasters across the pond and the Labour government of the day but also from their male co-workers and their union, run – you guessed it – by men. Evidently, solidarity only applied to the hairy-arsed blokes on the assembly line.

It was a time when a woman’s place was in the home and even those who had to work to put food on the table were routinely paid less than men because, well, they were just women, after all. Thankfully, times were a-changing. The strike was ultimately successful and led to the 1970 Equal Pay Act.

A musical adaptation followed in November 2014, opening at the Adelphi Theatre in London. It’s now doing the provincial rounds and we saw the production by the Norfolk and Norwich Operatic Society at Norwich’s handsome Theatre Royal. Am-dram it may have been but top not notch am-dram it was with sparkling vocal performances, light-footed routines and a real sixties vibe. We caught the matinee, joining the grey herd who laughed, gasped and clapped their way through a clever and often very naughty script, witty lyrics and jolly tunes. Mind you, the nice people from St John’s Ambulance were on standby with their defibrillators – just in case it all got too much.

Here’s how they did it in the West End…

The End of the Yellow Brick Road

Our move date from city to country coincided with tickets to see Armistead Maupin’s one-man show at Norwich’s Theatre Royal. Maupin is the author of the Tales of the City series of novels set in San Francisco which chronicle the lives and times of an eclectic group of residents passing through the Barbary Lane boarding house turned apartments owned by Anna Madrigal. We love the books (and subsequent TV serialisations) so it was with heavy hearts we had to give Maupin a miss.

Liam was determined not to miss the next big thing – gay icon-wise – to come along. And they don’t get bigger than the late, great Judy Garland. Liam is a BIG fan and was virtually hyperventilating as we took our seats at Norwich’s Cinema City for ‘Judy’, staring the wonderful Renée Zellweger in the title role. Liam loves a dead diva.

Covering the brief period when the down-at-heel legend arrives in London in the winter of 1968 to perform a series of last-chance concerts, ‘Judy’ is not exactly a feel-good film. We all know what happens in the end and watching Judy’s descent into drug and drink-fuelled hell makes grim viewing. But the film is strangely compelling and Ms Zellweger is mesmerising – interpreting rather than parodying Judy’s magical stage presence –  and all in her own voice. No miming needed.  I hear Oscar knocking.

Calendar Girls

Calendar Girls

Come Valentine’s Day, romantically-minded Liam likes to put on a show and the show in question was the Calendar Girls musical at the Theatre Royal, Norwich. And what a show it was too. Adapted from the 2003 film, it’s based on the real-life story of a group of middle-aged Yorkshire lasses from the local Women’s Institute who bare all in a naughty calendar. The husband of one of the racy ladies had died from cancer and the modest aim was to raise enough cash to buy a new sofa for the relatives’ room at their local hospital. The plucky troop battled against their own considerable anxieties and stiff resistance from their local chairlady, horrified as she was that the squeaky-clean, jam and Jerusalem reputation of the WI would be badly sullied. Eventually though, the ladies triumphed. The calendar was a runaway international success and it, and the sequels, have so far raised over £2 million for Leukaemia research. And the ladies bought the sofa. I call that a result.

The musical version, with a score by Gary Barlow from Take That, is emotional without being soppy, tuneful, uplifting, joyous and very, very funny. The touring cast of well-knowns and less well-knowns really know how to belt out a song or two. Like us, the audience lapped it up and gave a standing ovation at the end. For some, though, it was all too much. The lady next to Liam sobbed the whole way through. Cancer, as we all know, is a serious business.

For a taste, here’s the trailer (from the West End production)

Bugger the Bigots

la-cage-aux-follesIf Christmas was sedate and tranquil, January was an exploding glitter ball. The month began with the high flying Cinderella at the London Palladium, the middle featured La La Land, the bookie’s favourite at the Oscars, and the grand finale was a splendid performance of ‘La Cage Aux Folles’ at Norwich’s very own Theatre Royal. Literally meaning ‘the cage of crazy women’ – in fact ‘folles’ is French slang for screaming ladies of an entirely different gender. ‘Cage’ enjoys a glorious pedigree – the original 1973 French play, the 1978 (my coming out year) Franco-Italian film, ‘The Birdcage’, a 1996 Hollywood remake starring the late, great Robin Williams and a multi-gonged stage musical. The latest revival is now doing the rounds in the provinces. After Trump’s depressing God’s own country speech at his inauguration, it certainly revived me with its delicious ‘I am what I am’ bugger the bigots message. John Partridge’s performance as Albin, the ageing drag queen, was a revelation – totally OTT one minute, delicately poignant the next. The Norwich crowd gave him a well-deserved standing ovation.

Jack and Liam Move to Norwich

Jack and Liam Move to Norwich

Hardly breaking news is it? But it’s the title of a little something I wrote back in the summer of 2014 for the Visit Norwich City of Stories website. I was chuffed at the time when it was chosen as the opening piece in a series showcasing different aspects of Norwich life. I even pitched up at the red carpet launch and helped myself to one too many cocktails. The website has recently gone from literary showcase to shop window and content has been updated to feature the best the city has to offer. My article still stacks up I think, so I’m posting it here for posterity, with a few images to give it life.

City of Stories

Jack and Liam move to Norwich

Jack and Liam took up pole position outside a coffee shop to sup their lattes and people watch. The passing footfall was a bumper crop. A warm summer’s afternoon had delivered coaches of North Folk and charabancs of tourists to Norwich’s cobbled streets. Dutch lowlanders in sensible shoes mingled with happy snapping Koreans; local gentry in waxed jackets weaved through the hipsters in vintage garb; busy bees in smart suits hurried past, glued to their smart phone and a jester-hatted Big Issue seller competed with a line of smiley charity workers collecting direct debits for the cause. In the middle of the rainbow crowd, two men with well-fed midriffs and trendy whiskers paused to take in a busker crooning for his supper. They grinned as the Frank Sinatra tribute segued from New York, New York to a local interpretation of My Kind of Town (‘Naaridge is’) and when the final chords faded to nothing, they tossed some coins into a trilby perched on a Fender amp and vanished into the throng holding hands. Like everyone else in the surprising city, they were doing it their way.

Norwich Buskers

Jack ran his fingers along the cartoon tourist map. The tapestry of streets was weaved with familiar names of old London Town like Charing Cross, Blackfriars Bridge, Bishopsgate, Spitalfields, Haymarket, and Pudding Lane, threaded with roads of goats, cattle, dogs and a rampant horse, and stitched with more holy places than a mitred man could shake his crook at. But clearly this was not London. What the boys from the Old Smoke heard was an altogether different soundscape, just distant enough to escape the orbit of the great metropolis and the relentless surge of Estuary English. Somehow, Norwich had preserved a unique linguistic heritage, a melodic sweep of bouncing vowels and dropped consonants pickled down the centuries.

The inquisitive strangers downed their coffees to roam the streets. Their meandering took them to the Assembly House, a gorgeous pile of Georgian elegance and the perfect stage for Regency debutantes in ribboned bonnets to chase Mr Darcy and his magnificent britches around the courtyard fountain. Next door, the architectural show continued with the Theatre Royal, its modern overcoat disguising 250 years of board treading. A quick circuit of the front-of-house posters revealed an eclectic tradition of new and old, high-brow and kitchen sink, top hats and tutus, laughter and tears.

Back down the hill and along Gentlemen’s Walk, they passed neat rows of multi-coloured market stalls lined up like beach huts marooned at low tide. The vast City Hall, looking down on the medieval guildhall it replaced, provided an over-imposing backdrop.

Jack and Liam scampered down a maze of lanes and alleyways, a treasure trove of independents – shops, pubs and cafés. Norwich had bucked the national trend of sameness. Maybe the city’s relative seclusion had bubble-wrapped it from the commercial onslaught of identikit chains or perhaps wise burghers had protected the endangered. Whether by accident or design, it was a window shopper’s dream.

The most complete medieval city in Britain boasted the guide book, and as they pounded the streets up Saint This, down Saint That and along the lazy winding river that caressed the city like a feather-leafed boa, Norwich oozed the ages from every brick, paving stone and stained glass window. The city, it seemed, was triple dipped in history.

Finally, Jack and Liam came to rest on the far side of a handsome stone bridge and sat under the shade of a sprawling tree outside the Playhouse, the Theatre Royal’s little sister. A tree-top teapot in vivid yellow wafted in the breeze. The walk-weary old Londoners rested with a bottle of Merlot in the Playhouse beer garden. Close to the newly elevated University of the Arts, the bustling bar was the trough of choice for young fashionistas and their arty mentors. Jack and Liam took their seats in the refectory and imbibe an ambience that overflowed with naive optimism.

And that’s how it happened. One heady afternoon in the garden of the Playhouse Theatre Bar, Jack and Liam found somewhere new to lay their hats. An offbeat, theatrical, cosmopolitan, romantic, open-minded and open-hearted place set beneath the true-blue skies of Norfolk. Norwich, a surprising city. A place to live and a place to start living.

A random sample of Norwich’s medieval churches…