Americans say pajamas (as will I in this review), Brits say pyjamas. The motifs of across the divide and exploited workers standing up to Scrooge-like bosses demanding to be paid what they’re worth transcend all cultural differences.
Richard Eyre’s production of The Pajama Game (1954), which could be considered a Golden Age ‘B’ musical, has improved enormously since its first outing in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre last year; the thin story could have felt overstretched in a far larger proscenium setting, but instead the musical numbers (the main reason for staging the piece) are liberated with more room to breathe.
Set in a grimy factory (designed by Tim Hately) with little to distinguish it from a sweatshop, the audience is informed that they are about to watch ‘A very serious drama about capital and labour’ a statement made by the factory’s obsessively jealous time-and-motion man Vernon Hines (a volatile Peter Polycarpou), who can hardly be considered a reliable narrator. Richard Adler, Jerry Ross (supplemented by a few tunes anonymously contributed by Frank Loesser) and George Abbott might have created one of the first ‘modern’ musicals, depicting working-class folk in a hick Midwestern town in modern times. With Kurt Weill a reference point, it never loses touch with its mission statement as a stinging social satire, but ultimately it’s a bouncy musical comedy in a down-at-heel setting (with lovely full-skirted frocks) – with some really bizarre touches that at times dip into the downright surreal.
Politically incorrect attitudes abound in the Sleep-Tite pajama factory. Cocky superintendent Sid Sorokin, swooned over by all the women in the factory, greets complainant Catherine ‘Babe’ Williams with “You’re the cutest Grievance Committee I’ve ever seen” and promptly asks her for a date (the perfect opportunity for a feisty rejoinder). Michael Xavier brings a welcome touch of goofiness to the alpha male hero, which makes the character more appealing than that of a cardboard-cutout beefcake. The most famous song in the score, ‘Hey There’, is particularly delightful in context, a duet with himself on his dicataphone. The ageless Joanna Riding’s performance marks her out as one of the most distinctive performers of her generation with an exceptional gift for inhabiting any character she approaches.
The tomboyish, headstrong Babe, is no simpering 1950s heroine. She and Xavier make an ardent couple, the Beatrice and Benedick of pajama manufacturing, in complete adoration of one another. The explosive country and western-fused ‘There Once was a Man’ is reminiscent of ‘Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better’ in Annie Get Your Gun in its battle of wits and one-upmanship.
The ensemble of factory workers, made to churn out pair-after-pair of identical pajamas, are all well-defined as individuals. Stephen Mear’s skirt-whirling choreography effectively highlights a cathartic release of personality once released from the confines of repetitive manual labour, particularly in the ‘Once a Year Day’ sequence where barriers between management and workers are supposedly broken down, but tensions still simmer (rather like ‘The Farmer and the Cowman’ in Oklahoma!).
Claire Machin is charming as a mother hen secretary with a propensity towards flights of fancy who gets her chance to be a starlet in the Fred-and-Ginger-inspired number ‘I’ll Never be Jealous Again’, and Alexis Owen-Hobbs struts up a storm and channels Marilyn Monroe beautifully as ditzy blonde Gladys. If the show was set within any kind of reality, Hines’s knife-throwing antics would surely have him confined to a secure psychiatric unit (the oddest thing about the show is the way in which it seems we’re supposed to find it endearing).
Nevertheless, the jubilation of the 7-and-a-half-cent pay rise for the workers stirs genuine emotions and shared triumph. Thankfully there’s no foresight of their jobs being outsourced to China in the next few decades, ending the proceedings with a picture-perfect pajama parade.