“A damn good show .. poetry in a big, shiny sequined dress”
Dolly, Dolly, Dolly. What is there to say about the undisputed Queen of Country that hasn’t already been said? Other than the fact it’s what I blast during weightlifting 80% of the time (so now if you see me, congrats, you know!), it’s hard to come up with praise that hasn’t been done to death. I thought I’d get lucky when I got to talk about something Parton-adjacent, but unfortunately for me and very fortunately for everyone else in the audience, the praise vocabulary has a lot of overlap.
9 to 5 tells the story of Violet (Anna Steen), Judy (Gemma Lowcock) and Doralee (Alice Hoult): three embattled women struggling to stay strong in a world designed to keep them down. That world is typified by their boss, Franklin Heart Jr, neatly summed up as a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot”. After a chance encounter with the devil’s lettuce, the three heroines find themselves in far deeper than they intended, but with a chance to change both their lives, and the lives of their co-workers, for the better.
From the outset, I need to make it clear: this is a damn good show, with damn good performers. If the star rating wasn’t enough to tip you off, Footlights’ production of 9 to 5 is one to be proud of. The lynchpin of that success was the central trio of Hoult, Lowcock, and Steen. It’s not often that I get to see talent on the student stage that would fit seamlessly into a professional production, but then again, it’s also not often that you see not one but three vocalists who can not only sing to character, hit notes right in their centre zone and (as my opera teacher used to say) throw their voices out so hard you could hammer a nail with them. Even better is the obvious talent at play outside the soundtrack: Steen balanced great comedic sensibilities with an unexpectedly genuine reflection of the struggles faced by powerful women; Lowcock threw levels of vulnerability and hidden nerve into what could’ve easily been a cookie-cutter “beaten down protagonist in a musical” role; and Hoult could basically get a job as a Dolly Parton impersonator – sometimes it was genuinely difficult to tell the difference from sound alone.
And that’s even more satisfying when supported by a keenly talented secondary cast. Daniel Stansfield’s Franklin is a wonderfully grotesque, gurning gargoyle of a man, whose revelry in his own personal toxicity is almost a treat (almost); Mhairi Goodwin’s fawning office drone Roz was not only a brilliantly half-sympathetic secondary antagonist, but probably had my favourite performance in the entire production (you’ll know it when you see it); and special props go to Brett McCarthy Harropin a stunningly chameleonic performance as both a dancer, and the show’s sleeper comedy MVP, Josh. Honestly, most of this review could just be praise for the acting. Even if you are not mentioned here, please rest assured: I noticed you, and you were glorious.
Of course, what’s an actor without blocking? And although certain productions on the Pleasance Stage have erred towards A-Level Drama sensibilities in the past, this is certainly a welcome break. I was unable to find a fully-titled choreographer, but whoever in this production created the movement should be very proud of their work: the dancework has the precision of a watch movement. Every part of the stage had its own novel and interesting motions, fully cohesive to the overall pitch and wave of the beat. Darn good to watch, especially the opening number.
To round off the positives, many that there are: this is a musical. Not just a musical, but a Musical. If you’ve watched one or two, you’ll be very familiar with the emotional beats, levels and general plot. But parts of this show felt like I was seeing the familiar tropes for the very first time. When this production gets going and finds its stride, it’s poetry in a big, shiny sequined dress.
However, this gem is not without flaws. These seem most glaring behind the scenes: whoever was on sound needs to review their operations. The levels between the band and singers were usually abysmal for the first half of most songs, which makes it feel as if whoever was on script watch was distracted. In between the constant volume switching, and a feedback boom in the first half that could have blown fillings out, it ultimately came off as sloppy and far less than what a production like this should be capable of. Although fixed by due diligence, it was disappointing that such a big feature was handled so poorly.
That said, my one large criticism of what I was seeing directly onstage was that the opening number didn’t set my expectations high. I can’t tell if it’s a comparative lack of rehearsal or some mistake on the night, but the all-important 9 to 5 number sounded off key, off time and sluggish for maybe half of the time. Luckily the show recovered soon after, but I distinctly recall being viscerally afraid the rest would be much like it.
I wish I could’ve given the show an ‘Outstanding’, but these two issues – mostly the former – marred it enough that the entire experience didn’t reach the heights I knew it could have, given the rest of its parts.
However, the above flaws should be fixable, and even if not, I would still recommend this show. The sheer spectacle of a good musical is really hard both to organise and act in, but the levels of talent at play here are exactly what Edinburgh’s come to expect from the university’s Footlights in recent years. Despite the factors holding it back, 9 to 5 is a credit to the cast and team that have brought it to Pleasance, and it deserves every seat sold. In a world that’s all takin’ and no giving, this production definitely bucks the trend.
Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 6 February)
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