A musical based on a strike in a pajama factory where a manager falls in love with a union rep sounds promising. Its first production in 1954 won countless awards and ran for three years. 'The Pajama Game' at The Shaftesbury Theatre has some excellent numbers, including ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’, ‘Hey there (you with the stars in your eyes) ’ and ‘This is my Once a year day’. What a shame the storyline doesn't live up to the music. Factory work isn't a game, at least not for the employees.
Writer George Abbott based the script on a novel by Richard Bissell called 'Seven and a Half Cents'. The author says he was inspired by the warmth and liveliness of his family's factory in small-town Ohio, where he worked as a manager. The storyline follows the progress of an ambitious young man from Chicago, Sid Sorokin. Michael Xavier looks perfect as Sid, with something of a John Wayne manner and a strong voice. He’s also nifty on his feet, important in a show which excels in the choreography department. Joanna Riding as Babe, the feisty union leader, is suitably cheerful and flexible when it comes to dancing but her role is less convincing. There’s strong support from minor comic characters.
If the romance seems unlikely, the factory scenes have an undercurrent that works against the intended humour. The floor manager's efforts to speed up production with a stop-watch (‘Hurry Up!') as an opener, robotic workers all flustered, engage the audience from the start . However, the ‘Seven and a Half Cents’ number, where workers imagine in turn what twenty years of the tiny pay rise could bring, mocks their aspirations and desire for consumer goods. The staging reduces them to cartoon-like figures.
Richard Eyre’s direction is faultless and the songs are brilliantly staged. I can’t imagine a better production of the show. Arguably the theme has relevance, if only one of contrast in an era where workers’ rights hardly exist, thanks to erosion of union powers. It’s a shame that real-life disputes aren't so simplistic, or settled so easily, as in ‘The Pajama Game’.