“Just knock three times and whisper low, that you and I were sent by Joe”
Old Broadway classics seem to flourish in the rarefied air of West Sussex and it is hard to shake the feeling that Chichester has done it again with a revival of The Pajama Game. No stranger to big American musicals, director Richard Eyre demonstrates the surest of touches to keep the improbable subject matter – the trials of working life in a pyjama factory – anchored in a world that we always care about and is aided by the kind of score that feels recognisable even if you think you haven’t heard it before. Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’ score is full of fantastic old school tunes like Hey There (You with the Stars in your Eyes) and Steam Heat and two of the songs were actually written by Frank Loesser, although uncredited.
George Abbott and Richard Bissel’s book is based on Bissell’s novel 7½ cents set in the Cedar Rapids, Iowa Sleep-Tite factory in which new-to-town Superintendent Sid Sorokin finds himself falling head over heels for feisty union rep Babe Williams, whose stubborn initial resistance can’t ignore the mutually fiery passion between them. But trouble brews when the workers are denied a justified 7½ cent pay rise and Sid and Babe find themselves on opposing sides of a heated labour debate.
Joanna Riding is perfect casting as the spirited and independently-minded Babe. She brims with the self-confidence of someone in complete professional control – able to see through the grasping claims of a lazy chancer – but also brings a layered nuance to her emotional life, bemused at the prospect of a romance, delightfully exuberant when it comes to pass and yet firmly in control of how the relationship will progress, regardless of the sizzling chemistry. And she does connect extremely well with Hadley Fraser’s Sid, a goofily handsome presence but one imbued with a rich sense of yearning by his remarkable voice and together they make a couple that one simply cannot help but root for.
The richness of the female characters doesn’t stop there either. As Sid’s secretary Mabel, Claire Machin is a twinkle-eyed bundle of joy possessed of a wonderfully dry wit and Gladys, the boss’ secretary, is given hugely vibrant life by Alexis Owen-Hobbs who brings enough of a comic edge to temper the ditziness and is a sheer standout as a dancer. Peter Polycarpou’s knife-throwing Vernon brings comic relief alongside an energetic turn from Eugene McCoy as the nerdish union president Prez and the whole company emanate a lovely warmth. Eyre plays up the bonds of family and camaraderie to neatly remind us that we really are stronger together.
Stephen Mears’ expansive choreography adds a fizzing sense of life throughout – the group work at the picnic in ‘Once-A-Year Day’ is sensational, and the Owen-Hobbs-led Act 2 opener ‘Steam Heat’ are major highlights – but there is the occasional feel that it is a little constrained on this stage, with not quite enough room to fully breathe and extend its lines. Gareth Valentine’s ten-strong orchestra (I hope they’re all wearing those pyjamas…) sound excellent on these refreshed arrangements and Tim Hatley’s design makes great use of castors to keep everything mobile which allows for smartly fast-moving scene changes from factory floors to offices to forest clearings to a most appealing Mexican bar.
As with so many Chichester musicals, it isn’t hard to see The Pajama Game having a future life somewhere in the West End. But whilst one might be tempted to save the train fare and wait for the transfer, the thrill that comes from the intimacy of such a big, warm-hearted production means that you really should go and see it at the Minerva now.