Thursday, 15 May 2014

Theatre review: The Pajama Game

The fun side of sexual harassment in the workplace comes to the Shaftesbury Theatre as Chichester's production of The Pajama Game transfers. In what is only the first in this year's major West End musicals about an industrial dispute in a factory, Sid (Michael Xavier) joins the Sleep Tite Pajama Company as factory superintendent, where he quickly gets on the wrong side of the workers and has to deal with one of the trade union representatives, Babe (Joanna Riding.) Despite their first meeting being a clash, and despite her being named after a sheep-pig, Sid falls for Babe, and although she protests otherwise initially, the feeling is mutual because this is a musical rom-com. As soon as they have both declared their love though, a strike over the factory workers' demands for a 7.5 cent pay rise threatens to break them up.

I know 1950s musicals aren't exactly the last bastion of sanity and common sense, but I can't help feeling The Pajama Game abuses the privilege somewhat - at times the Technicolor weirdness had me wondering if someone had spiked my water.

So the story, based on Richard Bissell's novel 7½ Cents, is a pretty simple boy-meets-girl, boy-fires-girl, girl-not-overly-pleased-about-that, LOL-everything's-fine-in-the-end affair, but Bissell and George Abbott's book is full of attempts to set up jokes that end up as weird non-sequiturs, the story goes off in odd directions for reasons that are never apparent, while Richard Adler and Jerry Ross' songs seem to come even more out of left-field than usual. So we get Mabel (Claire Machin) duetting with Vernon (Peter Polycarpou) in a song about whether or not he trusts his wife Gladys (Alexis Owen-Hobbs.) Later he does some knife-throwing at a picnic. Then an argument between Vernon and Gladys at a bar is interrupted by a big dance sequence, as if nobody was sure how to finish the scene. Basically it's like a public service warning about the dangers of trying to write a sub-plot while suffering from major head trauma.

Stephen Mear's choreography is so jolly and frantic it's like a parody of a classic Broadway musical, and Richard Eyre's production certainly seems to be consciously adding the lunacy, since the oddness extends right up to the curtain call, which ends with a couple of cast members wandering back onto the stage as the lights go up. There might have been a biscuit on offer for the fact that Sid has to button his pyjama top up in the final number but it's mysteriously unbuttoned again in time for the bows, except I've never really been able to get that excited about Michael Xavier in that way - he looks too much like Rupert Everett so I'm just waiting for his face to melt. Besides, he can't really compete as far as muscles go with Joanna Riding, whose arms make Madonna look like she has bingo wings.

The Pajama Game may be the terrifying nightmare of someone who's had Sunny Delight pumped directly into their veins, but I'm not sure it's actually as good as that makes it sound. Sure, the factory workers sing about a picnic with all their co-workers, that they had to pay for, as their best day of the year. Sure, Sid and Babe's dates are interrupted by her dad (Colin Stinton) turning up to show them his stamp collection. Sure, the union president (Eugene McCoy) is really quite rapey, and calls an urgent union meeting in the middle of a strike just so Gladys can perform "Steam Heat." But in between moments of madness there's also moments that felt quite flat to me. As we left, Phill wondered aloud why they'd been performing an Argentine tango in a Mexican restaurant. Yeah, that's where plausibility went out of the window.

The Pajama Game by Richard Adler, Jerry Ross, George Abbott and Richard Bissell, based on 7½ Cents by Richard Bissell, is booking until the 13th of September at the Shaftesbury Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

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