SEW, STRUT, SWIRL AND SHAKE IT !
When this production ran at Chichester, I found myself forced to invent new words to describe Stephen Mear’s marvellously varied choreography as the SleepTite factory workers whirled and stumped around: oompahlumptious, balletriffic, tappamazing. To which I can now add struttrobatic and hoofofabulous. Close up in the small Minerva space the strut and swing and swirl of it felt as if we were all being lifted into the very essence and apogee of bodily joy: all the more because Richard Eyres‘ cast are not uniform West-End-chorus clones but – despite enormous dance skill and energy – a pleasingly realistic mix, a credible pajama-factory workforce of 1954.
In the bigger theatre, I was relieved to find, they project this wider and wilder and just as excitingly. They rock it up in “Once a Year Day”, and Alexis Owen-Hobbs returns as Gladys the bimbo secretary, a woman who can both dance like a dream through the spectacular stage geysers of “Steam Heat” and collapse into hilarious drunken chaos in Hernando’s Hideaway. Joanna Riding – give that woman another Olivier, now! – reprises her stridingly vigorous role as Babe, the union’s tough Chair of the Grievance Committee. Her leading man, Sid the Superintendent, is Michael Xavier: melodious, likeable, and particularly finely in tune with Riding as they swoop and josh and squabble, expressing in joyful physicality every mood of their rows and reunions.
Unusual for me to major on the dance, though it really is something special. But the show itself, with lyrics and music by Adler and Ross and George Abbott’s good-hearted book, stands the test of sixty years. Portentously announced as “A serious drama about Capital and Labour” in a tongue-in-cheek opener from Hines the time-and-motion man, it is a Benedick and Beatrice duel, or a star-crossed Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and flannellette, if you like. Babe cries defiantly at the height of passion “I will not let you come between me and the Union!”, Sid sings a grieving lost-love duet with his dictaphone but gallantly persists in trying to solve the 7-and-a-half-cent wage demand by bamboozling Gladys for the key to the accounts.
And all around them in Tim Hatley’s joyful ’50’s design there moves the swirl of human workers at their sewing-machines and steam-irons, on strike parades , on a works picnic. And there’s the magnificently ill-managed love affair between Gladys and Hines (it’s Peter Polycarpou again until the 31st, who is the funniest man on legs, then Gary Wilmot takes over). Other standout moments are owed to Claire Machin as the stout, nimble, ironic secretary Mabel and, of course, to the unavoidably and eternally humorous subject of pajamas themselves. Stripey, flappy, undignified yet vital to commercial survival. Lines like “Thread is the cornerstone of pajamas!” and “Pajamas are at a crossroads” never fail. Well, you’d need a heart of stone.
box office 020 7379 5399 to 13 Sept