Girls at drama school should be issued on graduation with voodoo dolls of Joanna Riding and a set of gilded pins for she is formidably the one to beat. Twenty years after her Olivier-award-winning Julie Jordan in the legendary Carousel at the National, here she is at 47 still playing romantic leads and proving herself every bit as vocally and physically fit as the dynamic young ensemble.
Like her character, trade union firebrand Babe Williams, she’s a robust survivor – of two consecutive flops at the Gielgud in Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Lend Me a Tenor, of replacing the often-absent Martine McCutcheon in My Fair Lady, of never herself being replaced during the endlessly re-cast Witches of Eastwick, and of being wrongly accused as the ‘other woman’ in Felicity Kendal’s divorce.
That last horrible incident was during her first job playing Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz at Chichester from whence The Pajama Game comes barrelling into the West End trailing five star reviews.
It is, mostly, an extraordinary show – based on a factual novel featuring a strike in a 1950's garment factory where a young manager who has fallen for Riding’s character turns the tables on a corrupt boss and the workers get their pay rise. If only such toe-tapping musical magic could be applied to the tube strikes, although we doubt the RMT would settle for ‘Seven and a half cents’. It has some of the best show tunes of the era, many of which became popular standards.
It’s also extraordinary for the way it incorporates largely-irrelevant musical numbers – one set in a low-lit latin night-club unlikely to be frequented by Ohio machinists, another interrupting the strike meeting to showcase the dance moves of three cast members in a boiler room, which were shoehorned in to the original by intractable producer George Abbott to boost the career of his untried choreographic protégé, a 25-year-old Bob Fosse.
Stephen Mear’s own choreography is splendid for embracing all this and blending it with hints of the rock and roll era about to erupt, the routine for 'There Once Was A Man' being particularly heraldic of the blue suede shoes to come.
The young manager is puppy-eyed giant Michael Xavier, at 190cm so used to arching his back to embrace diminutive leading ladies he’ll soon be able to play Richard III without prosthetics. He’s superbly relaxed in this role, and his warm blend of tenor and baritone is perfect for the romantic ballads: a duet with the Dictaphone on ‘Hey There’ would melt the stoniest heart.
There are some great comic turns – we loved Claire Machin’s feisty secretary Mabel and her duet ‘I’ll Never Be Jealous Again’ with cor’-blimey-guv-is-it-really-him-off-Birds-of-a-Feather time-and-motion man Peter Polycarpou is a hoot. From 2 June Polycarpou will be replaced with cor’-blimey-guv-is-it-really-him-off-Me-And-My-Girl Gary Wilmot.
It is all good fun. It is also, however, a 60-year-old musical and you need to appreciate the nostalgia to get the best of it. So take your mum. Or your nan. Or both of them.
The Pajama Game runs at the Shaftesbury Theatre until 13 September. Evenings at 7.30pm with matinees Wednesday and Saturday also at 3pm. Tickets £20 (restricted view) to £65, available from the production website or the box office on 020 7379 5399.
We saw this production on tickets provided by Jo Allan PR.