The factory workers’ union is threatening to strike as it seeks a seven-and-a-half cents pay rise. But if the actors at the Union Theatre are probably being paid even less than that princely sum, and the rudimentary but resourceful set (with the onstage band divided from the acting area by clothes rails hanging with pyjama stencils) probably didn’t cost much more, nothing on earth should stop you from rushing to see a classic but rarely-seen 1954 musical made over by this amazingly spirited little theatre.
Certainly anyone still scarred by the memory of Simon Callow’s dreadful West End production in 1999, which played briefly at the Victoria Palace, will be relieved to discover that the show is actually far better than they remembered it. But if, as I also did, you saw the smart and sassy 2006 Broadway revival, this stands honourable comparison with it, on far less budget than would have been spent on a single New York Times ad.
What it’s got instead is honesty, integrity and enthusiasm to spare. Even a last-minute replacement of the leading lady didn’t spoil things - Stephanie Nielson, standing in for the indisposed Kate Nelson, gave the character of Babe Williams dramatic and musical weight as well as literal height, and was ideally paired with Graham Weaver’s terrific, handsome superintendent Sid, who sweeps Babe off her feet but has to do his job and sack her when she sabotages the production line by killing the power to it.
No one can diminish the power that this 15-strong cast - three of whom do double duty to be part of the five-person band - brings to the show’s chorus line, filling the tiny stage to overflowing in numbers such as Steam Heat (rolled out in a Fosse-esque tribute by Sally Brooks) or the blissful amusements of Hernando’s Hideway.
This is a show that shouldn’t be hidden away, though. It’s one of the best musical theatre treats in London.