Theatre reviews: 9 to 5 | The Covid Requiem

Certain aspects of 9 to 5 may feel dated, but at heart it remains a hard-hitting story about the exploitation and marginalisation of women at work, writes Joyce McMillan

Natalie McQueen as Doralee Rhodes, Louise Redknapp as Violet Newstead and Amber Davies as Judy Bernly in 9 to 5

If there is one celebrity – apart from Marcus Rashford – who has emerged from the Covid crisis with tremendous credit and an enhanced reputation, it is the wonderful Dolly Parton, who instead of using her immense wealth to fire huge phallic rockets into orbit, instead chose to help fund the development of the Moderna Covid vaccine.

So it seems more than appropriate, as Scotland’s autumn theatre season comes back to life, that the opening show at Edinburgh Playhouse – after an unprecedented 18 month closure – should be Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 (****), the stage version of the much-loved 1980 film in which she starred as sexy office secretary Doralee, alongside Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda. The 2008 stage musical – with book by original screenwriter Patricia Resnick, and songs by Parton herself – remains a firm favourite on the touring circuit, not least because of the sassy and pointed filmed introductions and sign-offs delivered by Dolly herself.

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Essentially, 9 to 5 is the story of three women office workers who rebel against the appalling behaviour of their boss, one Franklin Hart Jr., to the extent of kidnapping him, holding him hostage, and starting to run the business themselves. Violet – played in this strong and good-hearted touring production by Louise Redknapp – is a superb office manager repeatedly passed over for promotion to executive rank. Judy, played by Vivian Panka, is a new recruit, plunged into the workplace after her husband dumped her for a younger woman. And Stephanie Chandos’s Doralee – well, as Dolly puts it, we know who Doralee is, and she ain’t too happy when Hart starts to pester her, on the assumption that sexual favours are part of her job description.

Some of the working-out of the story is more fairytale than hard feminist politics, of course; this is a 1980s stage musical, after all, and happy endings are obligatory, as are cheeky sexual jokes. At heart, though, 9 to 5 remains a hard-hitting story about the exploitation and marginalisation of women at work, delivered with terrific flair and good humour by director Jeff Calhoun’s 16-strong company; and beautifully presented on Tom Rogers’s brilliant set, which transforms from skyscraper office to basement bar at the flick of a lighting-shift, in a show where the pace rarely falters, and the story – despite so much social change – still seems made for the #metoo moment through which we are now living.

There is one powerful link between 9 to 5 and Jo Clifford and Lesley Orr’s Covid Requiem, now playing at Pitlochry; and that lies in the sense that women’s voices must be heard, if we are to move forward to better times. In every other respect, though, the two events could barely be more different; for The Covid Requiem is more a service of remembrance than a theatre show, staged in the powerful outdoor setting of the woods behind Pitlochry Festival Theatre – so much so that to offer it a star rating would seem wrong, not to say inappropriate.

For 45 minutes, playwright and performer Jo Clifford and theologian and campaigner Lesley Orr lead us through the glorious woodland, to the sound of exquisite traditional laments, pausing at five resting places to reflect on the losses of the past year, and to remember some of the individuals who have been lost, in all their ordinariness, and all their unique magic. Nothing is said that has not been said before, about the towering emotions of grief, anger, disbelief, admiration, love and despair that have been unleashed by the pandemic. Yet the act of coming together to share that experience, in a way shaped by common humanity rather than prescriptive faith, seems profoundly important and enriching; and of deep comfort to those for whom this has been a year of great loss, and continuing loneliness and pain.

9 to 5 at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, and The Covid Requiem at the Pitlochry Festival Theatre both until 18 September

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