The Pajama Game is a shiny 1954 Broadway musical based on the novel 7 ½ Cents by Richard Bissell. This production, directed by Richard Eyre, has transferred from the Chichester Festival Theatre and expanded itself out into the capacious Shaftesbury Theatre, filling every inch of it with squeaky-clean, good ol’ fashioned Broadway.
The story is almost incidental to this production full of show-stopping song and dance set-pieces, and simply provides an excuse to gather a large ensemble of talented performers and to introduce a few kooky characters. The action takes place in a pyjama factory in the Midwest, where (admittedly mild) tensions are brewing within the union over an unforthcoming pay rise. A budding love affair gets caught up in the kerfuffle and is briefly rent apart, allowing time for a couple of tear-jerker ballads including the famous ‘Hey There (You With Stars In Your Eyes)’. But of course, in the timeless Broadway tradition, everything comes right in the end.
The two leads, played by Joanna Riding and Michael Xavier, are both magnetically charismatic, and carry the somewhat saccharine love story with charm and humour. However, they don’t need to carry much else, as there is not a weak link in the cast and under Richard Eyre’s direction every single ensemble member is purposeful, engaged, funny and interesting during every single second that they’re on stage. There is a wonderful star turn in the second half from Alexis Owen-Hobbs, a stellar triple-threat who takes on the song and dance solo in ‘Steam Heat’, and has the audience in stitches as the put-upon secretary Gladys.
Although the production is outstanding, the musical itself is almost maddeningly gentle, with almost no friction, pique or peril, safely occupying a niche carved out in theatre sixty years ago and offering no innovation. The set-pieces, spectacular as they are, are long and indulgent, and there is many a forced chuckle at the tired cliché of men making unwelcome (and frankly, to modern sensibilities, inappropriate) advances towards their female co-workers. It is a real treat for an impoverished theatregoer like me to see performances of this calibre – without a free press ticket I am priced out of shows like this by a good deal more than 7 ½ cents. However, I can’t help but feel that this talent (and this venue) could be put to more inspiring use in something less frothy and more relevant.
The Pajama Game is playing at the Shaftesbury Theatre until 13 September. For more information and tickets, see The Pajama Game website.