The Pajama Game, Shaftesbury Theatre, London – review

A show about an industrial dispute simply should not be this much fun. That’s the view too of the time-and-motion man in the Sleep-Tite pyjama factory, who informs us sternly that “This is a very serious drama: it’s about capital and labour.” But this is 1950s musicals-land, and any serious points (there are some) come packaged in an irresistible mix of waspish comedy (book by George Abbott and Richard Bissell), droll songs (Richard Adler and Jerry Ross) and exuberant dance – all fabulously delivered in Richard Eyre’s affectionate production.

This staging started life at the Chichester Theatre, but expands happily, filling the big West End stage with the clatter and chatter of a shop floor full of sewing machines. The first number, “Racing with the Clock”, gives us 1950s American production at full-pelt: a cheery bunch of workers busting a gut to keep up with the growing consumer demand for comfort and elegance in their pyjamas. But there’s trouble brewing: the workers want a pay rise, the management is resisting. It’s a crisis that will put lovebirds Sid Sorokin, the new superintendent, and Babe Williams, the union rep, in direct conflict.

Their prickly romance is the heart of the show – bringing a whole new meaning to the term industrial relations. But while it’s all lightly handled, Eyre’s production cannily suggests that this is a musical about a changing America. The production seethes with energy: the whole workforce seems ready to burst a button – if they weren’t so busy dancing they might challenge more fundamentally their sweatshop conditions and crooked boss. Both Eyre’s direction and Stephen Mear’s witty, effervescent choreography draw on the great American musicals of the 1940s, but also hint that rock’n’roll is just around the corner. And while the factory churns out safely unerotic pyjamas, the atmosphere is steamy with lust and sexual frustration. Change is in the air.

The elastic begins to sag slightly in the second half, with a rather meandering sequence leading to Sid finally saving the day. But it’s so joyously performed that it is hard to mind. There’s fine, detailed work from the cast: Peter Polycarpou and Claire Machin deliver a delightfully daft duet about jealousy, while Alexis Owen-Hobbs sizzles as the sultry secretary. And in the Darcy and Elizabeth-style love affair, Michael Xavier brings a lovely wry style to his character’s mix of arrogance and anxiety (duetting with himself on the office Dictaphone) and Joanna Riding combines terrier-like determination with vulnerability. A stylish pyjama case, this one.

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