“Mrs Henderson Presents contains scenes of nudity.” I suppose that alone will draw people in (and repel others) to this production, just as theatre proprietor Laura Henderson (Tracie Bennett) together with her manager Vivian Van Damm (Ian Bartholomew) did back in the 1930s with their ‘Revuedeville’. It’s the ultimate cost saving on costumes: do away with them altogether. I wonder whether the current Government would approve such austerity.
This apparent exploitation of the human figure through displays of so much flesh will, no doubt, offend ardent feminists. That it offends in this way only increases its appeal for some others. Most, though, will recognise that the big reveal is only one part of this multi- layered story, and isn’t nearly as big an aspect of the show as, for instance, Henderson and her company’s triumph over adversity, in keeping a show going throughout the Second World War. The narrative includes so much more than celebratory delights, even if it’s the motion picture that audiences must turn to if they wish to discover in depth the real, actually rather sweet, reason why Henderson embraced the idea of nudity on stage.
A theatre show about a theatre show – it sounds so very self-indulgent. At least to some extent, it is, and it knows it: the backdrop is the perfect excuse to slot in some tantalising song-and-dance numbers. Andrew Wright’s choreography is aptly swift and grandiose, not just in the large ensemble pieces but in ‘Lord Chamberlain’s Song’ too, with just Henderson, Lord Cromer (Robert Hands) and the Secretary (Oliver Jackson) flitting around the stage in tune to the music and lyrics in an equally utterly silly and utterly charming manner. Put another way, if I hadn’t known any better I’d have thought I was watching a Gilbert and Sullivan opera-comedy.
There hasn’t been a new British musical this good for a while now. Not satisfied with telling a story from a previous generation, there are some stunning soaring melodies to enjoy that come from an era before the likes of Rent and Wicked. The big showstopping songs are back: Emma Williams as Maureen gets to belt out the biggest note of the evening in ‘If Mountains Were Easy to Climb’; elsewhere, there’s gravitas in Van Damm singing ‘Living in a Dream World’, and sincere warmth when Matthew Malthouse’s Eddie sings ‘What a Waste of a Moon’.
Jamie Foreman’s Arthur, meanwhile, appears misunderstood by those who didn’t enjoy his introductions and asides – the role of narrator (or ‘chorus’, to borrow a term from Shakespeare) tells jokes that are deliberately not particularly amusing. It’s the psychology of the Christmas cracker punchline – lines are so unfunny they unite people in agreeing how ‘bad’ they are. ‘Good’ jokes, on the other hand, would (so the psychology goes) only serve to potentially create division as people disagree on how ‘good’ the jokes were. In this regard Arthur is frankly first-rate.
In its depiction of London living in World War Two, the jauntier scenes and songs of Revuedeville are all the more triumphant. Samuel Holmes’ Bertie displayed some phenomenal dancing, with a strong and likeable vocal to match. Maureen has it right, though, when she sings of ‘ordinary’ this and ‘ordinary’ that – it’s the backstories of those actors, creatives and crew of Henderson’s Windmill Theatre, just ‘ordinary’ people, that make this production so universal, relatable and triumphant.
I must say it’s a delight to see Mike Dixon waving his conductor’s baton in the heart of London’s ‘Theatreland’ once again, even if, busy maestro that he is, it’s only for a limited period. A ‘hot’ ticket (sorry), this is a great British musical, possibly the best and most heartfelt to land on the West End stage since Matilda. The hype is to be believed. It’s witty. It’s intense. It’s energetic. It’s sublimely superb. I shall spare you any more superlatives and simply encourage you to get along to Mrs Henderson Presents and enjoy a Windmill Theatre experience.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Mrs Henderson Presents
It’s London, 1937, and recently-widowed eccentric, Laura Henderson, is looking for a way of spending her time and money when her attention falls on a run-down former cinema in Great Windmill Street. Hiring feisty impresario Vivian Van Damm to look after the newly renovated Windmill Theatre, the improbable duo present a bill of non-stop variety acts. But as war looms something more is required to boost morale and box office… When Mrs Henderson comes up with the idea of The Windmill Girls – glamorous young women posing as nude statues – audiences flock. And as the Blitz hits London, The Windmill provides a refuge for all, boasting the spirit-raising slogan “We Never Close“.
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With book and direction by the Tony Award-winning Terry Johnson (La Cage Aux Folles), lyrics by the multi-award-winning Don Black (Sunset Boulevard) and music by George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain, this glorious and heartwarming new production stars Tracie Bennett (Les Misérables, End of the Rainbow, ITV’s Coronation Street), Olivier-nominated Ian Bartholomew (Into the Woods) and Emma Williams (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang).
Age Restrictions: Please note that an age restriction is not in place for this production.
Important Information: Contains scenes of nudity.
Mrs Henderson Presents
Noel Coward Theatre
85-88 St Martin’s Lane, London, WC2N 4AU
Evenings: Monday, Wednesday to Saturday 7.30pm
Matinees: Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday 2.30pm
Booking Until: 18th June 2016