Watching the film version of 9 to 5 as a teenager, back in the 90s, I remember thinking ‘well, that’s the 80s – the olden days – things are different now…’. That view changed shortly afterwards, when I discovered that us ‘girls’ at Woolies were expected to do warehouse work and climb ladders in a pencil skirt, blouse and heels – rather than the distinctly more suitable uniform the male staff wore. Still, I wondered how the story would work in 2022 – would it seem dated, now we no longer have typing pools, memos or quarterback-level shoulder pads?
I needn’t have questioned it: Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 – the Musical is an absolute blast: funny, feel-good and fiercely relevant to contemporary life. It deftly presents the 80s references as more of a cultural playground than a fossilised time capsule. We get the executive excesses (cigars, mock Georgian architecture, panelled offices), the cult of austerity-presented-as-efficiency (grey, steel, minimal, relentless busy-ness), and a joyous, bold and colourful aesthetic (Memphis-style couch, hues straight from a Bennetton catalogue circa ’86, block colour suits). Suddenly the 80s don’t seem so distant: we all recognise these tropes, even if the specifics have evolved.
This is very much a Dolly Parton musical – although not here in person, her warmth, wit and song-writing savvy are ever-present. Dolly’s way with words makes every song feel like a short story in its own right. Musically the style is true musical theatre – show-stopping solos, great ensemble numbers, brilliant comic timing and wonderful interplay with dance and movement - rather than a ‘Dolly’s greatest hits’ soundtrack.
Another key delight of the show is the way it handles everything with a surprisingly ‘British’ humour – at times, this production of 9 – 5 felt like a feminist take on the Carry On films, with lots of wonderful visual slapstick and smutty jokes (but now mocking the boss’ tragic sex drive, not the new girl’s bottom). This keeps everything playful, light and hugely entertaining, even when the subject matter is not.
Discrimination, sexual harassment and bullying are not easy terrain for any stage production, and in 9 to 5 the Musical they form the basis for the entire story. Violet (played by the brilliant Claire Sweeney) is an undervalued workhorse and single mum, who sees the younger men she trained given the promotions she clearly deserves. Judy (Vivian Panka) is trying to adjust to an abrupt introduction of the working world, after being left by her cheating husband. And Doralee (Stephanie Chandos) – very much a Dolly avatar – is written off as a brainless bimbo due to her penchant for figure-hugging pink clothing, big blonde hair and Southern ways. Their nemesis is sleazy, lazy, sexist boss Hart (Sean Needham), and it’s an absolute pleasure to see them turn against him, and show what they’re really capable of (in many ways!).
Like the film, the show understands that to get its message across it has to put entertainment at the top of the agenda – and this absolutely works. After a couple of hours of 9-to-5's take-no-crap mindset, don’t be surprised to find you’re freshly primed to assert ambitions, call out nonsense and make changes. All delivered with a lot more fun than any of the ‘new year, new you’ books that profess to provide the same mental uplift. On a cold, foggy January night, you might find Dolly Parton's 9 to 5 - the Musical is exactly the tonic you need.