In Edinburgh University Footlights’ sparkling new production of 9 to 5: The Musical the stage is dominated by a huge clock, its hands permanently stuck at 9am. And while this story of sexism, misogyny and male entitlement is set firmly in 1970s America, so much of its message is still relevant today that one could be forgiven for thinking that this clock has stopped for a reason. Over 40 years later, a police campaign is advising women to run in groups to avoid being harassed, seven of the BBC’s top ten earners in 2017 were men and the president of one of the world’s superpowers thinks it’s OK to ‘grab them by the pussy’ Times change, and then again, times do not.
Violet (Anna Steen) has been working for Consolidated Industries for years. She’s smart – much smarter than most of the men, especially her patronising boss Franklin Hart Jr (Daniel Stansfield) – but she’s never promoted because she’s a woman.Violet knows the score:
‘He’s the guy. We’re the little guy.’
Although Violet is cynical and resigned, Steen also shows us her innate humanity. When Judy (Gemma Lowcock) arrives in the typing pool, inexperienced, terrified and desperate for a job after her no-good husband Dick has dumped her for a younger model, Violet’s brusque ways can’t conceal her generosity of spirit as she helps Judy along. Solidarity is what keeps all of the women going – but their support network doesn’t at first extend to Hart’s secretary Doralee (Alice Hoult; outstanding), who is ostracised thanks to Hart telling everyone (untruthfully) that he’s sleeping with her.
The story of how these three women find a way to take control, get what they want, and along the way improve the lives of their put-upon co-workers, may be far-fetched, but the facts behind it are real, and every woman will surely recognise something, not only in Hart’s appalling behaviour but also in the social rules designed to keep women in their place.
But 9 to 5 is also tremendous fun. From the pounding beats of the famous hit song to the cautious romance of Let Love Grow the Footlights cast never misses a beat, and the dancing in the ensemble numbers is both joyous and polished. In a show whose production standards are uniformly high, Rebecca Joyce must be especially congratulated for her choreography; typists’ fingers fly on imaginary keys, their shoulders wiggling in unison, Hart and the men perform a half-Monty worthy of Robert Carlyle, and Shine Like the Sun bursts with rapturous optimism while maintaining a tight, professional presentation.
All three leads are impressive, but Hoult’s Doralee is a star turn – not only does she look like Dolly Parton (who took the role in the original film and also wrote the musical score), she sounds like her, moves like her, and even sings like her – her beautiful voice is full and mellow, so much so that when the epilogue tells us that Doralee became a country singer, we have no trouble in believing that’s exactly what she did.
Lowcock’s Judy is a frump concealing a burning fury; once that breaks through there is no stopping her. Steen’s Violet ably conveys a lifetime of workplace frustration. Frustration of quite a different kind affects Mhairi Goodwin’s Roz – her Heart to Heart is a triumph, and both she and Daniel Stansfield provide the best comedy, Goodwin with her bodice-ripping abandon, Stansfield with his hip wiggling attempts to look sexy rather than plain sleazy. Yann Davies’s sweet Joe provides balance – there are good men among all the boors.
The only issue with the performance that I saw was the sound, in that, despite the cast members’ good diction, it was sometimes hard to hear them over the orchestra – but no doubt this is a problem due partly to the layout of the Pleasance Theatre, and might not have happened in a location where the orchestra could be seated either lower than, or farther away from, the stage. It certainly didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this exuberant show.
9 to 5: The Musical is at The Pleasance Theatre, 60 Pleasance, until Saturday 9th February. Tickets from http://www.edfootlights.com/9-to-5/ or on the door, subject to availability.
All photographs (c) Andrew Perry.