9 to 5 The Musical
Dolly Parton (music and lyrics) and Patricia Resnick (book)
Palace Theatre, Manchester
Be honest—with the erosion of working conditions, the growth of zero-hours contracts and the threat to livelihoods from new technology—working life is grim these days. There is a desperate need for some bright light relief—enter 9 to 5 The Musical.
Time has been kind to 9 to 5 The Musical. The original movie (written by Patricia Resnick who has adapted her screenplay into the musical) was a lightweight production featuring Jane Fonda as a far from credible naïve office drone. The revival of the musical, however, gains contemporary resonance arriving while controversy over gender pay inequality and the #MeToo movement continues and the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale has just been published.
In the 1980s, divorce compels Judy Bernly (Amber Davies) to seek employment for the first time in her life. She works with Violet Newstead (Louise Redknapp) who is overlooked for promotion and exploited by their chauvinistic boss Franklin Hart Jnr (Sean Needham). Both women look down on Doralee Rhodes (Georgina Castle) as gossip suggests, inaccurately, she is Hart’s mistress. The trio bond over their shared sense of injustice and resolve to confront Hart. However, matters get out of hand resulting in unintentional kidnap and an inadvertent office coup.
Director Jeff Calhoun sets the play squarely in the 1980’s, which allows the audience a certain sense of smug satisfaction at how much things have improved. Costumes are so exaggeratedly stylised they resemble military uniforms and the production boasts a wig and hair designer with Richard Mawbey certainly earning his pay. The humour is not subtle – the opening montage features a character rising from bed with full morning glory and a divorcee mourning the absence of her husband Richard by stating how much she misses Dick.
Calhoun catches the hustle and bustle of the workplace and even the sense of underlying anger. Lisa Stevens’s choreography is rapid and aggressive with the cast striding briskly around the stage just about avoiding collision. Tom Rogers’s designs reflect the alienating effect of office life- a series of computer monitors frame the stage stretching back into infinity. In a neat touch, the colour scheme changes from drab grey to bright colours after the office coup.
Dolly Parton’s background in country and western music ensures she can pen songs of hardship and heartbreak. However, the score for 9 to 5 The Musical pushes Parton outside of her comfort zone with narrative and comedy numbers—including a sly reference to the title of her best-known song. Nevertheless the best numbers—"Backwoods Barbie" and "I Just Might"—are very much Parton playing to her traditional country strengths. Dolly Parton has produced the musical and certainly does her best to ensure success with video messages introducing the show, summarising the later lives of the characters and leading a concluding sing-along.
Sean Needham is a real trooper—spending much of the show strung up, Boris Johnston style, above the stage and wearily checking his watch as the audience wanders back after the interval.
Louise Redknapp plays older than her years as the jaded office manager Violet and her tremendous dance routine for "One of the Boys" reflects the high quality of the show. The revelation is, however, former reality TV star Amber Davies whose charming turn as the wallflower who turns out to have a spine of steel is matched by her superb vocals.
9 to 5 The Musical is not going to resolve the problems of inequality but as a welcome relief from the horrors of working life it takes some beating.
Reviewer: David Cunningham