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

By Ruth Leon
09 Jun 2014

Joanna Riding and Michael Xavier in <i>The Pajama Game</i>
Joanna Riding and Michael Xavier in The Pajama Game
Photo by Tristram Kenton

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


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.


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