I should start with a disclaimer: any notion of objectivity in this review is totally laughable. In her review of the Sh!t Theatre’s Dollywould, Exeunt’s illustrious reviews’ editor Hannah Greenstreet wrote that she ‘couldn’t imagine’ who exists in the Venn diagram of Dolly Parton and weird-ass performance art theatrics fans. Hi Hannah, it’s me. I have a tendency to cry when Dolly’s on telly and I didn’t speak to my parents for a week after they went to Dollywood and DIDN’T GO IN BECAUSE IT WAS RAINING. Do you think Bernadette would have got to the entrance of that cave in Massabielle and turned around from the holy apparition because of drizzle?
I am the embodiment of 9 to 5’s target audience, I was there bouncing in my seat to the touring version in 2012, basking in the light of its weird Dolly-faced Tellytubby sun. She still beams down upon us in the Savoy’s version, now enclosed within the clock-face logo and lighting up the screens of the 80s desktops that frame the proscenium in Tom Rogers’ set. A self-aware Dolly operating system guiding your day, it’s like a version of Her I would actually want to watch.
The first version of this review was divided into three sections. Not quite a ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ but more ‘the divine, the angelus and the flawed sinners of earth’. The Lourdes metaphor has probably established that I gaze upon Dolly and all her actions with religious awe (even the 1984 cover album The Great Pretender. Surely the oddest version ever of I Walk the Line). Here is the rub: Dolly is divine, she can do no wrong. The tunes in 9 to 5 are all bangers, I even forgive the cutting of the whip-cracking ‘Cowgirl’s Revenge’. The plot is the Scum Manifesto, feminist seizing of the means of production narrative that we deserve. A #MeToo and #MeStill (it’s horrible how recognisable the sexist 1980s office is nearly 40 years on.) cowboy boot with spurs stomping all over the Weinstein shit in the West End. Three women, tired of their gross, exploitative sex pest boss decide to kidnap him, tie him to the ceiling with his own BDSM collection and run the office on their own terms. Spoiler, they’re bloody brilliant at it.
The Angelus is the Catholic prayer that celebrates the incarnation of Jesus through the veneration of Mary. The four female leads do Dolly’s material such justice that I am canonising it as an act of worship. Brian Conley is a laughter generator as the vile boss but never lets himself become actually unlikeable. It’s an understandable decision, keeping things light allows for Bonnie Langford’s enamoured PR Roz to bump’n grind in a desperate plea for his love without feeling icky. However, it also means that the vengeance is candy coloured. We’re rooting for overlooked Violet (a consistently excellent Caroline Sheen) to get what she deserves, yet ‘One of the Boys’ feels too literal. She’s belting it out, a vision in an angelic white tux but surrounded by Fosse shuffling suits that do nothing except confuse the message.
The 1980 movie version of 9 to 5, written by Patricia Resnick, who also created the book for the musical was the first of a run of successful roles for Dolly in 80s and 90s*. I say roles, they are all modelled on the same model: don’t judge a book by its massive hair do. You should also not judge a book by whether they’ve been on Love Island. Turns out you can look incredible in a bikini and still hit the high bars/dispose a bomb/advise the government on education policy. Amber Davies makes a cracking Judy, the shy young divorcee finding her voice, bringing both the vulnerability and hefty lung power needed for ‘Get Out and Stay Out’. Natalie McQueen, be still my Nashville heart, does the impossible – she carries off all the sweetness and fire of ‘Double D Doralee’ without doing a Dolly impression. Her voice is incredible (I NEED that version of ‘Shine like the Sun’, soundtrack album – now please) and her delivery is hysterically funny. The increasingly bizarre southern similes build hilariously, possibly thanks to having comedian Pippa Evans onboard as dramaturg. Something I think should be now compulsory for all musicals – let’s get Gráinne Maguire writing some jokes for Les Mis.
Sheen, Davies, Langford and McQueen are the diamonds in the rhinestone world of this production. Quite simply, they are on another level to everything else on stage. I don’t want to be mean or picky, but tickets start at £45 for restricted view, and if I’m finding the staging cluttered in a (freebie) £150 seat, that’s not ok. The trucks wobble, the choreography smacks of a sixth form dance recital (all twirls and no bite) and the ensembles’ costumes look cheap. It feels odd when you have such brilliance in the foreground, why bother with all the fodder in the back? It’s a minor moan perhaps but the program lists ‘Backwoods Barbie’ as ‘Backwards’ – unintentional I’m sure but just suggests a lack of care.
It’s a necessity, not a sin for a show to need to make money and no one more than Dolly understands how to sell an image, but it’s almost as if someone kept tacking on accessories in the hope of making an extravaganza. Like any Dolly Parton fan, I prescribe to the catechism that more is more but maybe the more I wanted from this production was just too much to ask.
* Big screen roles. But if you haven’t seen some of the created for telly wonders including A Smoky Mountain Christmas where Dolly had to battle a witch who looks like Cher on a budget and her poison pie racket, you are sorely missing out.
9 to 5 – The Musical is on at Savoy Theatre. More info and tickets here.