What on earth was Simon Callow thinking? In the programme notes for The Pajama Game, the actor-turned-director writes 'of all the many joyful, throw-your-hat-in-the-air, set-your-foot-tapping and send-you-out-into-the-cold-night-air-with-a-grin-a-mile-wide-on-your-face musicals ever written, The Pajama Game is pretty near the top of the pile'. Assuming this is true - and I, frankly, would beg to differ - there is scant evidence of it in his new production.
The 1954 musical comedy is set in a small town in the American Mid-west at the Sleep-Tite pajama factory. As the workers prepare to strike for a seven-and-a-half-cents pay rise, the blossoming romance between Babe Williams, the head of the workers' grievance committee, and Sid Sorokin, the factory's new superintendent, threatens to derail negotiations.
It's a slight tale and, though there's a smattering of familiar songs such as 'Hey There, You with the Stars in Their Eyes' and 'Hernando's Hideaway', it's difficult to understand just what drew Callow to it as a potential project in the first place. What's clear, however, is that his intention is to produce an out-of-the-ordinary, post-modern reworking.
To this end, he has gathered together an eclectic team which, despite their impressive individual credentials, are not a one known for their stage musical expertise. And their inexperience - or in any case inappropriateness - takes its toll. Frank Stella is a case in point. A renowned American abstract painter, he has no track record in set design. A collection of monochromatic, cardboard flats and pop-up furniture props, his set here appears cheap to the point of derision.
Extended to the performers as well, this eclectic approach has also led to some jaw-dropping miscasting decisions. For the Birmingham premiere earlier this year, Babe was played by Gladiators TV presenter Ulrika Jonsson who, wisely, pulled out before the show reared its head in the West End. She's replaced by Leslie Ash, best known for the sitcom Men Behaving Badly, who looks distinctly uncomfortable in the role and is as equally weak in the vocal department as she is on her feet.
John Hegley, a respected comic and poet, plays the vaudevillian character Vernon Hines, the factory's Time and Motion man. But while his off-kilter and lugubrious manner may lend itself well to his stand-up routines, it does not carry off the slapstick required in this instance. Former EastEnders star Anita Dobson fares better as the boss's secretary Mabel but hers is a small part.
Which leaves Graham Bickley as Sid to out-dance and out-sing the rest of the cast by a mile. He is the one principle who is actually an accomplished musical veteran and thank god. Exceptionally strong of voice and suave in his Dean Martin-style suits, he, like Atlas, seems to bear the weight of the entire production.
Note: The following review dates from the show's premiere at the Birmingham Rep in April 1999.
Director Simon Callow has not had an easy time reviving this 1950's musical based on the novel Seven and a Half Cents by Richard Bissell. He has, amongst other things, been accused of perpetrating a gross publicity stunt in casting Swedish TV babe Ulrika Jonsson in the lead role of Babe Williams, a character origionally played on the big screen by Doris Day. But don t judge too quickly, as much of the media has done: it seems Jonsson s singing lessons have paid off. In her performance as ballsy Babe, she holds her own, pulling off a convincing American accent and carrying her songs with confidence.
The story line is a simple one. Babe is a factory employee and head of the grievance committee. Sid Sorokin is the new manager at the Sleep Tite Pajama factory who falls in love with her. However, the path of love is not so smooth when the factory workers, lead by Babe and her union colleagues, campaign for a seven and a half cent payrise.
Jonsson works well with Graham Bickley as Sid, particularly during the rousing, foot-stomping rendition of 'There Once Was a Man' which is happily refrained in the second act. Unfortunately, Sid's hit solo 'Hey There' doesn t live up to previous renditions from the musical, but this was no reflection on his singing and acting skills.
Other notable characters at the pajama factory are the boss' secretary Mabel, played by former East Enders star Anita Dobson, and the “Time and Motion Study Man”, Hines, played by poet and comedian John Hegley. Hegley steals the show as the knife-throwing nerd who is overly jealous of his flirty girlfriend Gladys (Alison Limerick). He also has some of the best songs including 'I'll Never Be Jealous Again', performed with Mabel, and a very funny 'Think of the Time I've Saved'. As his sexy girlfriend, Limerick proves to be quite the Disco Diva in her two musical numbers, 'Steam Heat' and 'Hernando's Hideaway'.
Maybe Jonsson was a publicity stunt. Okay, so she doesn t have quite the strength of voice expected of a leading lady, but she's got verve. And there s plenty more besides to make for a fun night out - a great musical score, a fine supporting cast, and have I mentioned the knife throwing? On the opening night, Jonsson was shaking so violently she couldn't balance the apple on her head!