Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Pajama Game

Music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, book by George Abbott and Richard Bissell
Chichester Festival Theatre
Minerva Theatre, Chichester

Joanna Riding as Babe, with the company of Pajama Game Credit: Tristram Kenton

Summer is here again—we hope—and it’s time for the Chichester Summer Festival to begin. As if waking up from the winter of mud and machinery (the Festival Theatre is in the process of being re-built) they have chosen The Pajama Game and woken up with a bang.

The show is set in a clothing factory where the workers are expecting a pay rise, but boss Hasler (Colin Stinton), whose mantra is "Can’t waste time", has brought in a new superintendent to increase production. You just know there’s going to be trouble, and there is.

Who would have thought that the story of a strike in a clothing factory could lead to such a fabulous, feel-good joyous musical? But that’s exactly how it turns out. From the opening scene of the frenetically busy factory floor, with sewing machines and steamers going twenty to the dozen and they are all “Racing with the Clock”, to the celebration of “The Pajama Game” at the end, it’s a non-stop whirl of music, dancing, drama, comedy and a couple of love stories for good measure,

Hadley Fraser is Superintendent Sid, with a strong, powerful singing voice which fills the small Minerva Theatre, and when he meets the feisty independent Babe—superbly portrayed by Joanna Riding—the Union Rep, they instantly fall in love, but then the workers down tools and they are on opposite sides. Can they ever get together?

Of course they can; the Happy Ending is obligatory in fifties musicals which makes the show sound a bit dated, but in Richard Eyre’s fast-paced production there is no time to dissect and reason, and who would want to when this revival seems as fresh and original as when it was first produced on Broadway.

Tim Hatley’s clever two-storey set is mainly the factory floor with offices above, but it switches in the blink of an eye to a wooded picnic spot or Hernando’s Hideaway, a venue which seems to have been injected into the show to bring a touch of the exotic, but who’s complaining when it provides great dancing with comic mystery and a tipsy secretary whose head keeps descending to the table with a resounding ‘thwack’. This is Gladys, played with great comic panache by Alex Owen-Hobbs, and what a great dancer, particularly impressive in “Steam Heat” where jets of vapour shooting up from the floor make positioning even trickier.

The duet “I would Trust Her” with Claire Machin’s Mabel trying to get Peter Polycarpou’s Vernon over his jealousy nearly stopped the show with laughter. His girlfriend, the flirtatious Gladys, is taking a chance here considering his knife-throwing skills.

A young Bob Fosse was the original choreographer in the fifties, but there is no sign of his distinctive bowler-hatted, turned-in style here. The excellent Stephen Mear has made it all his own with some inspired and often very tricky dance moves, and Gareth Valentine’s orchestration is in tune with the mood of the show from the romantic, yearning “Hey There” to the staccato marching rhythm of “Seven and a Half Cents”.

The show is so exuberantly enjoyable that I didn’t want it to end. Chichester has had many of its productions transfer to the West End. I expect this to be another.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor