Review: 9 TO 5 THE MUSICAL, Savoy Theatre

By: Feb. 17, 2019
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9 to 5In a programme interview, Patricia Resnick - writer of both the original 1980 film and this 2008 musical adaptation - notes that Jane Fonda wanted to convey a political message about workplace sexism, but realised couching it in comedy would make it more palatable. Like composer Dolly Parton herself, who appears on video to top and tail the stage show, it's a considered combination of sugar and steel.

9 to 5However, Jeff Calhoun's OTT, eager-to-please production struggles to find that delicate balancing act. It wants to be a #MeToo-esque female empowerment drama, as well as a madcap, cartoonish farce - but here, the latter stifles the former.

The 1980s-set plot is close to the movie. Three demeaned office workers - veteran Violet, whose promotion goes to a junior man she trained; new girl Judy, taking her first job after her husband shacked up with his secretary; and Doralee, who endures constant unwanted sexual advances from boss Mr Hart - decide to get revenge and run the company their way.

The evil boss man has humorous elements in both film and stage incarnations, yet must still be a believable antagonist to give the story stakes. But Brian Conley, who shuffles around wearily and mumbles his semi-American-accented lines as though gargling gravel, is never a threat; he's just too much of a hapless sad-sack, a lech but a blithely lovelorn one in 'Carry On' fashion.

Worse, the musical version essentially equates his career-damaging chauvinism with the eccentric but comparatively harmless secret crush nursed by his "dowdy" assistant Roz, with both characters given big comic numbers to express their unreciprocated desire. Mr Hart becomes a punchline - even more so when his kidnapping involves the women's discovery of his fetish wear, leaving him suspended, going into the interval, like an S&M Peter Pan.

It fits with this genial show's preference for pantomimic gags (Judy's ex is called Dick, purely for double entendre purposes), which draw whoops, claps and groans from the audience. That response extends to the main plot too, but it feels hollow - a #girlpower moment cheaply won, rather than grappling with the more insidious and entrenched nature of gender discrimination.

The battles depicted here are (depressingly) still being fought; the utopian office features free daycare, flexible hours, job sharing and equal pay. But the context for these debates have shifted, and it's here that the period drama feels out of step. That's not to say there aren't still Mr Harts operating, as the Weinstein revelations have shown, but sexism now comes in subtler and more complex forms too.

Perhaps the best example of that is not Conley's winking caricature, but beta male sidekick Josh, who never oppresses the women directly, but is perfectly happy to laugh at all of Hart's boorish jokes - and who is subsequently rewarded with a promotion.

There's also something of a nostalgic glow around a job that only requires you to work 9 till 5 (rather than all hours, thanks to modern technology), and, in these turbulent Brexit times, that this one stable job can support, for example, single mother Violet and her teenage son.

The show does try to supply a male ally via accountant and love interest Joe, however there's further nuance lacking. The recently widowed Violet actually rejects his overtures several times, but Joe persists, even claiming to know what she really thinks and wants - and yet his behaviour is given a romantic glow.

Taken as broad entertainment, cheerfully backed by Dolly's country-pop songs (though none as memorable as the title track), there are some enjoyable elements here. Caroline Sheen - who replaced an injured Louise Redknapp late in the process - powerfully anchors the production as a wry, brilliantly efficient Violet who reaches an understandable breaking point.

Sheen is a confident triple-threat performer, and supplies a standout turn in "One of the Boys" - Violet's dream of becoming female CEO. It's suspiciously similar to Chicago's "Roxie" (complete with Fosse-isms), but her white suit recalls the potent symbol of Democratic Congresswomen donning the same suffragette white at Trump's recent State of the Union, and Sheen sells Violet's long-cherished ambition.

Natalie McQueen, generously endowed with the appropriate assets, and with a Dolly-alike but still distinctive voice to match, is a charming avatar. She's convincing both in no-nonsense, gun-totin' form, and wistfully vulnerable in "Backwoods Barbie" - though the latter, which describes Doralee's humble origins and pride in her hard-earned, if synthetic beauty, does make you wish for an actual Dolly bio-musical instead.

Love Island's Amber Davies makes the aggravating choice to convey emotion by beginning on a high-pitched whine and ascending to a descant squeal. But she belts out Judy's big empowerment anthem ably enough, and is better when Judy plays off the others in a more relaxed way, as in a fun scene where the trio get stoned. That's capped by new song "Hey Boss", replacing the revenge fantasy elements - a rather generic number that quotes Aretha's superior "Respect".

Bonnie Langford reprises the role of Roz from the UK tour with show-stealing athleticism, stripping off her office garb to reveal vampy lingerie, popping into splits and high kicks, and at one point singing while in an upside-down lift. It's riotous fun, but contributes to the show's overreliance on razzmatazz slapstick.

Choreographer Lisa Stevens also supplies some fairly standard rat race/literally running a race movement, while Tom Rogers surrounds the stage with computers mirroring scenes, and coordinates both set and boldly period costumes to illustrate the office transformation: from gloomy monochrome to vivid colours.

These choices are indicative of a show that's bright and feel-good, but just too broad for its subject matter: more tipsy office party than meaningful workplace drama. Brand Dolly may be about the heart and grit beneath the rhinestones, but this 9 to 5 is too often distracted by the sparkle.

9 to 5 the Musical at the Savoy Theatre until 31 August

See video and photos of Dolly Parton on opening night

Read our interview with Natalie McQueen

Photo credit: Pamela Raith