A LETTER FROM LONDON: Playing the Pajama Game and Feeling Closer than Ever to Maltby and Shire

The monthly missive from Across the Pond visits some surprisingly successful revivals and James Graham's new play about interacting on the internet.

Joanna Riding and Michael Xavier in The Pajama Game
Joanna Riding and Michael Xavier in The Pajama Game (Photo by Tristram Kenton)

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The extraordinary depth and breadth of London theatre hit me again this month, as it does periodically. I go to the theatre four or five times a week on average and I never know, from night to night, what treat is in store. My late husband, also a critic, used to swear that people like us, theatregoers who are enthusiastic about sitting in the dark every night with a notebook on our laps, are brain-damaged. Nobody else, he claimed, would deliberately expose themselves to so much psychic pain, albeit that of others, so frequently. And, as for objectivity, how can we possibly carry so much memory and mental baggage into the playhouses without having our judgment at least partly skewed by having seen too much. When even a regular theatregoer says to me about a production of Hamlet, "She was the best Ophelia I've ever seen," I think, but don't say, "How many have you seen? Four? Five? I've probably seen 40."

But every month, when I sit down to write this column, I'm stunned by how much I've seen just in the past 30 days, and how wonderful, for the most part, it all is. Interesting, isn't it, that the cinema presentations of theatrical events don't detract from the live experience. We've learned to be sophisticated about the differences and to understand that, although they're related, they're two completely separate things. Here in London, I can visit the Met in New York in real time, enjoy the opera along with friends over there — indeed I sometimes see people I know in the audience during intermission — all while sitting in the Curzon Cinema in Chelsea, with big red buses chugging past outside. What luxury. And this doesn't in any way lessen the joy of sitting, the next night, in the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, watching live and listening to the sixth revival of David McVicar's blissful production of Le nozze di Figaro, which has lost not a scrap of its fizz for all that I first saw it in 2008.

Talking of revivals, if you'd asked me whether there should be a revival of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross's 1954 The Pajama Game, I'd have giggled and told you to think again. I would have told you that, although it had a sizzling score replete with songs that have become classics — "Hey, There," "Hernando's Hideaway," "Steam Heat" — the plot, about a factory where the manager and the union organizer fall in love from opposing sides of a labor argument, would simply not fly in our more sophisticated times. And, in fact, I would have been right; or half-right, at least. The story was probably just as silly in 1954, although it won the Best Musical Tony and today's labor relations are conducted on quite a different level, but somehow none of that matters in the face of a star-making performance from American Michael Xavier; a manic and very funny one from Peter Polycarpou, as a time-and-motion-study man; and Stephen Mear's exuberant choreography, which seems to be an extra character in itself. Despite my initial reservations, The Pajama Game, transferred from Chichester, is an unlikely West End hit.

On a much, much smaller scale, the revival of Maltby and Shire's song cycle, Closer Than Ever, directed at tiny Jermyn Street Theatre by Richard Maltby himself, reminded me of why it has always been one of my favorite scores. Four good singers, two men, two women, Graham Bickley, Sophie-Louise Dann, Arvid Larsen and Issy van Randwyck, sing grown-up songs, the stories of people you recognize, of people who could be, and indeed may be, you and me. There is no moon/june/spoon here, but much good music played by Nathan Martin, making a piano with bass obligato sound like an entire orchestra, and wonderful lyrics. I was enchanted by this show when I first saw it in New York in the '80s because the songs appeared to be about me. And, yes, some of the references are a bit dated now, I don't know how many of us still go to find our inner selves in Ashrams anymore, but the human emotions are real and they reach out over the years to hit the spot still. Not to be missed.

Patricia Hodge
Photo by Catherine Ashmore

We were talking last month about Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, starring Angela Lansbury. Just as good is The Master's lesser known play Relative Values, which has opened here in the West End with an absolutely smashing cast. Relative Values is one of those Cowards which is very rarely produced because it has a large cast and every one has to be a star. This cast is led by Patricia Hodge, Caroline Quentin, and impressionist Rory Bremner, hilarious collectively and individually, steering an unerring path through the situations and the jokes, in Coward's deliberate poking of fun at the English class system and, only incidentally, at Americans and their obsession with Hollywood. This is a master class in high comedy, a romp through the peculiarities of the English aristocracy and their much more snobbish servants. Any American actor trying to understand how the Brits do it could do much worse than take a trip to London to see Relative Values. They will learn what British acting students absorb in their first Coward class: it's not about accents, it's about style. If you want to understand the British, it helps to understand the Irish. The wonderful new revival at the National Theatre by director Howard Davies of Sean O'Casey's The Silver Tassie is at the National. This was O'Casey's far less successful follow-up to his earlier hits, Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars. The Abbey Theatre, where all his previous plays had been produced, refused The Silver Tassie apparently on the grounds that its director, WB Yeats, thought that, since O'Casey had not served in the First World War, he could only be writing his opinions about it, not his experiences. But this production demonstrates, more clearly than anything I can say about it, that the roots of the troubles, that terrible civil war which rumbles on to this day, were sown in that war and therefore gave rise to every aspect of O'Casey's other plays which, though written first, were set chronologically later. At times The Silver Tassie is difficult to watch, especially for the English, because we know what came after. The Irish are still unable to come to terms with their history, then or now, and, in a different way, so are we.

American playwright David Henry Hwang is the leading character in Yellow Face, his fascinating study of attitudes towards race in contemporary society, currently playing in The Shed at the National. This is a fine play, although it takes a while to get going and saves its best barbs for the second half of the second half so you're hanging around for a while, trying to work out whether it's a documentary in theatrical terms or a play at all. Let me tell you, it's definitely a play and the small cast, each playing multiple characters, even switching identities and genders from time to time, makes it not only clear and sometimes sad, but also very funny.

Moira Buffini's Handbagged is a gem, a wonderfully funny look at the characters, situations, and relationships of Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher. Four actors play the two icons and two men play all the men in their lives and some of the other women too. This is a clever and insightful picture of two unique roles — female monarch and female Prime Minister — and how their being women affected how they played them. Handbagged is about power, and how to use it when you're the first of your species. They were inevitably going to dislike one another, each seeing the other as symbolic of a world they could never enter. What's it like being the first woman Prime Minister? And aren't monarchs usually men? Here's why each had to forge her own path and here's a fine trespass into the corridors, or at least the kitchens, of power.

Privacy by James Graham is the best new play I've seen for many months, a disconcerting and genuinely scary look at what we reveal about ourselves through the multifarious platforms of Facebook, Twitter, our computers, our cellphones, our tablets and all the rest. What can other people find out about us? Just about everything. Snowden's revelations are just an icechip on the iceberg of information. You are encouraged to bring your cellphones and use them during the play. When you do…..

(Ruth Leon is a London and New York City arts writer and critic whose work has been seen in Playbill magazine and other publications.) Check out Playbill.com's London listings. Seek out more of Playbill.com's international coverage, including London correspondent Mark Shenton's daily news reporting from the U.K.