Wednesday, 18 June 2014

'The Pajama Game' at the Shaftesbury Theatre

I went to a socialist rally tonight to hear dialectic Marxism and workers' rights and solidarity with the brothers and sisters and what did I get? Songs! And dancing! But, luckily, the striking workers won the argument and capitalism was shown to be corrupt and selfish *fist in the air*.

I went to see 'The Pajama Game' at the Shaftesbury Theatre. I've never seen it before (or the film) so I was coming to it fresh. It's the story of a dispute over wages at the Sleep Tite Pajama Factory embodied by the management and union leads falling in love and singing lovey-dovey songs while industrial relations fail around them.

There isn't much of a plot, really - boy (management) meets girl (union) they argue and fight then declare love at a works picnic then boy sacks girl and the union goes on strike over a 7.5 cent pay increase. Boy settles the strike by getting hold of the boss's secret accounts that shows he's been fiddling the books and pocketing the money and forces the company to give the workers the pay increase and then boy and girl can get back together. Of course, there's a lot more to it than that (but not much). There's a shedful of casual 1950s sexism in the text that, no matter how it's played, still comes through loud and clear. The politics is also quite odd for 1954, so close to the McCarthy show trials and portraying the little lady as the political one in the play (the union leader is clearly just out to have sex with as many union members as possible).

The play opens with the cast coming in from the floor of the theatre as if they're appearing at the gates at work in the morning. Then we have Gary Wilmot (yes, that Gary Wilmot) as the time and motion expert welcoming us to the factory before the stage is again invaded by the workers pushing their sewing machine tables and chairs on stage for the first big scene. The scenes mainly blur between the factory floor and the factory office with an outing to the local park for the annual works picnic, and, in the second half, with 'Hernando's Hideaway' nightclub. As well as the casual sexism there's also casual racism against native Americans with Gary Wilmot dressing as a 'red indian' for his knife throwing act and scalping lines in a later song. It really quite jarred with me.

Every now and then the stage exploded into colour but, in the main, I thought it was a bit drab. A factory is hardly the right setting for an explosion of colour but it's about pyjamas and they're all colours so it can be done. The colour all seemed to come later in the second half of the show. Oh, and our heroine never wears the yellow dress shown in the publicity posters. On the other hand, there's enough movement and vitality to make up for it, with never a dull moment on the stage.

I really liked the leads. It was great to see Gary Wilmot again - the first time in a couple of decades, I think - and he was great fun with great timing. I also really liked Michael Xavier as our hero Sid (who calls a hero Sid?). He has a great voice and it's a delight to see him again - I saw him as one of the princes in 'Into The Woods' at Regent Park a few years ago so it's nice to see his career progressing so that he's now playing the lead in a big West End show. I also liked Joanna Riding as Babe, the union rep who falls in love. She brought a nice feistiness to the part but didn't quite quash the casual sexism.

The sound wasn't terribly good and sometimes the cast were drowned out by the orchestra (maybe someone new was on the sound-desk for that performance?). Despite the sound and the occasional drabness of the stage, there was something about the production that kept a smile on my face for most of the performance. I don't know what it was but I was conscious that I was smiling. And not just for the daft 'Hernando's Hideaway' section.

It's on for another couple of months so see it if you can - it's not the best musical ever and there are some problems with it but it was great fun and a lovely way to spend a few hours. Solidarity!

PS: Pyjamas are spelled with a 'y' in British English. A minor annoyance having that rogue 'a' in the word on the poster...

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