The beloved 1980 film, starring Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, was a pioneering moment in feminist cinema.
When she came up with the idea, Fonda decided to go down the comedy route because she didn’t want the message – that women have the right not to be harassed at work, and that their talent should be recognised – to be too preachy. In the end the broad comedy actually enhanced that message.
But this musical version swamps its story in inch-thick makeup and foot-high hair. This is very much of the more is more school of musical theatre.
Parton created the show a decade ago with the film’s screenwriter Patricia Resnick, writing new songs to belt out alongside the title number. There’s an aimlessness and playing-for-time quality to some of these tunes that hollow it out, though there’s still a lot of fun.
Caroline Sheen’s Violet (replacing Louise Redknapp who pulled out due to injury) is a competent worker constantly passed over for promotion by her chauvinistic charlatan of a boss Franklin Hart – a stupendous Brian Conley, his performance leaving nothing to the imagination. She teams up with klutzy new girl Judy (Amber Davies) and ‘backwoods Barbie’ Doralee (Natalie McQueen) to get revenge.
McQueen’s Doralee has the same irresistible positivity and sweetness of Parton, not to mention a superb Southern drawl. She’s Parton’s spitting image, albeit four foot taller. Davies overdoes the ditziness a bit, but Sheen is just brilliant. It’s like the role was made for her, and there’s certainly no sign she jumped into it last minute.
There’s also a superb performance from Bonnie Langford, as uptight office secretary Roz Keith. She rips off her sensible suit in one song to reveal a tight bodice; it’s a show-stealing number in which she dances, twirls, sings, and even does the splits. It’s brilliant to see a woman over 30 being allowed to own her sexuality on stage.
But under director Jeff Calhoun the show veers too far into Carry On territory in the way it presents men gleefully lusting after women. Conley gets a song where he sings about how much he fancies Doralee, and there are even silly sound effects every time a bit of flesh jiggles. This is accompanied by a niggling sense of “wasn’t it all good fun?”, misdirected nostalgia, even if on the whole it’s still condemnatory.
Ironically it’s in the most unrealistic moment, when they first threaten to kill Franklin, that the characters become most real. Suddenly these women are serious, formidable, powerful. And as the show progresses into a second act they become more human and less broadly comic.
Parton’s written some decent songs for this, with blasting three part harmonies for Sheen, McQueen and Davies to thunder out.
A partly digital set by Tom Rogers and video designer Nina Dunn adds to the slick, colourful look. The really fantastic costumes from Rogers whack us right back to the 1980s in full, glorious Technicolor, saturation levels notched up to 11.
The show as a whole is fun, if gaudy and silly, but its feminist message, when compared to the film, is like costume jewellery next to a Faberge egg. It’s still very entertaining, and after all these years (almost 40 of them) it feels, depressingly, necessary.