I am a Dolly Parton superfan. When I’m feeling lacklustre or in need of a swift kick up the backside, blasting a hit from the blond-haired country music legend is guaranteed to lift my spirits and make me want to wear double denim and glitter.
While 9 to 5 is (arguably) Parton’s most famous song and the instantly recognisable intro (Parton couldn’t decide how to begin the song so she just used her fingernails as the opening rhythm) has everyone hitting the dance floor with their pals, not everyone has seen the 1980s movie of the same name. Written by Patricia Resnick, the film stars Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Parton as three working girls who live out their fantasies of getting even with, and eventually overthrowing, their sexist, egotistical and law-breaking boss. The stuff of feminist dreams, right?
In 2009, the film was adapted into a successful Broadway musical and is now showing at the West End’s Savoy Theatre until May 2020 and currently touring across the UK and Ireland. Cue an extremely excitable Emma.
Naturally, the show bursts to life with a rousing rendition of 9 to 5, causing everyone in my row to jump in surprise. Parton then appears via a video clip (in a giant gold mirror, of course) singing her famous tune and giving us a bit of backstory before Louise Redknapp arrives on stage and we’re introduced to the main players. Redknapp portrays Violet Newstead, an undervalued and whip-smart employee, with great confidence, and Georgina Castle gives a sterling, and wonderfully comic, performance as Doralee Rhodes. But it’s Love Island star Amber Davies who delivers the standout turn as sweet-natured Judy Bernly who has just been dumped by her husband, the aptly named Dick, for a younger woman.
“I just miss Dick,” she cries, naively, and the audience explodes into hysterics.
Despite her Professional Diploma in Musical Theatre, I was genuinely surprised (and massively overjoyed) by Davies’ ability to command the stage and belt out the roaring Get Out and Stay Out.
“Yes, girl,” someone shouts from the row behind. “Go on!” And what better way to sum up the performance? Or the entire show for that matter.
I’ll admit I had my reservations about the cast, but now I’m ashamed of my original misgivings. I was blown away by Redknapp, Davies and Castle – a stark reminder to never underestimate women – who exude chemistry and are believable as the colleagues-turned-friends-turned-workplace-vigilantes. As Dora Lee sings in Backwoods Barbie: “I’ve always been misunderstood because of how I look / Don’t judge me by the cover cause I’m a real good book.”
So while critics might dismiss 9 to 5 as just a bit of fun, if you dig a little deeper there are some thornier issues at its core. Comedy is an excellent tool for exploring such topics and, yes, 9 to 5 is a touch cheesy in places and full of light-hearted moments, but it packs a punch. While it could appear slightly dated, it’s worth remembering that although there is the odd nod to current political goings-on, the show was written (and is set) in the 1980s.
In an interview in the programme, Resnick was asked if she believed things have changed in the workplace since writing 9 to 5 and she replied that it had “absolutely” altered in some ways “but in others not so much”. Back in 2009, she recalls being frustrated by male journalists suggesting these issues were no longer common in the office and therefore difficult for women of today to relate to. She says: “Sexism was depressingly just as prevalent in our time now as it was back in the 80s. It’s just done a bit differently now.”
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, and with the recent discussion around the gender pay gap, 9 to 5 is still (unfortunately) relevant. “This probably won’t be an issue in 10 years,” suggests one of the characters, and there’s an audible chuckle from the audience. If only.
It would be remiss of me not to mention Sean Needham’s strong performance as Franklin Hart Jnr and Lucinda Lawrence as Hart’s secretary, Roz Keith. Both are incredibly funny.
The show ends, of course, with a sing-along and the whole (packed and sold-out) theatre is up on its feet. Political commentary aside, it’s a real feel-good show and, to me, that’s what musical theatre is all about. If I’m up and dancing, I’m happy.
As I make my way to Piccadilly Station, I overhear a girl talking to her pal. “What I’d really like to see is 9 to 5 as a horror film,” she says. “That would be great.”
I think I’ll pass on that. It’s far too much like real life.
Main image: 9 to 5 The Musical. Amber Davies as ‘Judy Burnly’. Photo by Pamela Raith.
9 to 5 The Musical is on at The Palace Theatre in Manchester until September 21, 2019. For more information or to book tickets, click here.