Even for those who usually baulk at the idea of seeing a musical, the new production of The Pajama Game is a treat not to be missed, argues Jaz Blackwell-Pal
It may seem strange to step into a West End show and be greeted by an actor telling you that this is a story ‘about capital and labour’, but the conflict between workers and management is at the heart of this huge show.
Set at the fictional Sleep-Tite Pajama factory in 1950’s America, the musical tells the story of Babe, a union rep, and Sid, the newly employed superintendent. They find love in unlikely circumstances, but their joyous affair is quickly threatened by industrial strife when they find themselves on opposing sides of a pay dispute.
Originally based on the novel 7½ cents by Richard Bissell, the musical first opened in New York in 1954, with music by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross. Richard Eyre, former director of the National Theatre, who in 1982 directed a hugely successful Guys and Dolls revival that went on to run for four years, directs this new production. His expert handling, combined with brilliant choreography from Stephen Mear, results in a thrilling and endlessly entertaining show.
While show-stopping songs such as ‘There Once was a Man’ set up the romantic arch of the story, this is quickly disrupted by the looming possibility of strike action. Despite a blossoming love affair, Babe refuses to compromise on her responsibility to her fellow workers, infuriating the ambitious Sid who is eager to please his new bosses. When Babe enforces a slow down and sabotages company machinery Sid decides to fire her. Any hopes of romance are suddenly cut short as their political differences start to seem irreconcilable.
Musicals have rarely been viewed as a particularly radical form. In Britain their rise to prominence is closely linked with the Thatcher years, when huge, industrial scale, unsubsidised shows by the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber were held up as beacons of entrepreneurship and success. But The Pyjama Game marks the latest in a string of politically focused revivals in the West End. Last year the Young Vic had huge success with the Scottsboro Boys, a fantastic production about racist injustice, which is reopening at the Garrick Theatre in October. Earlier this year the satirical musical Urinetown, set in a world where even toilets have been privatised, opened to rave reviews at the St James theatre. In this context, The Pajama Game is a welcome addition to the current trend.
A strong supporting cast provide weight to various sub plots, and numbers such as ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’ provide plenty of comedy gold. The seamless production keeps you hooked until the final showdown between the workers and their corrupt boss Mr Hassler.
Faced with rotten management and betrayal by her partner, Babe stays true to her ideals all the way through, refusing to compromise for the sake of a man. In the end it is Sid who has to decide whether to change sides and support the workers or continue to defend the company. As you can expect with a mainstream musical, the resolution is not quite as radical as one would hope. But it is an undeniably uplifting show that ends on a celebratory note for the workers, both on the stage and in the audience.
The Pajama Game is showing at the Shatesbury Theatre, London, until 13 September. Tickets are available here