Musical theatre doesn’t need to be ground-breaking or stuffed full of numbers that go on to become ‘standards’ to be thoroughly enjoyable. What’s needed is a compelling story, an excellent ensemble and music and lyrics that move the plot along rather than holding up the action. Mrs Henderson Presents is just that – and it’s unashamedly and eccentrically British – with a Jewish protagonist sharing top honours for good measure.
Writer and director Terry Johnson was captivated by the 2005 film Mrs Henderson Presents, the story of the Windmill Theatre in London starring Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins, and he jumped at the chance of developing a musical of the film with leading Jewish lyricist Don Black and composers George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain.
In 1930, recently-widowed Mrs Laura Henderson buys the old Palais de Luxe cinema as a creative diversion and fits it out as a tiny, one-tier theatre, renamed the Windmill. It is, of course, not profitable so she hires Vivian Van Damm to change its fortunes. Van Damm, of Dutch Jewish origin, hits on the idea of ‘Revudeville’, a programme of continuous variety with 18 entertainment acts. But this is also a commercial failure, so they add the daring dimension of nudity to create the allure of the Folies Bergère. To get round the censorship laws policed by the Lord Chamberlain’s office, Mrs H argues that since nude statues cannot be banned on moral grounds neither can living statues or tableaux vivants. Hence the ruling "If it moves, it's rude".
This is the true story ripe for transmuting into first cinema and now stage-musical gold. And Van Damm's flair for public relations created the legend of the theatre that "never closed". Newspapers carried pictures of plucky Windmill girls in tin hats on fire-watching duty, and stories of showgirls giving V-signs to German bombers. Indeed, except for a 12-day period in 1939, when all London theatres were ordered closed, the Windmill remained open throughout the Blitz.
The plot inevitably rests heavily on the shoulders of Henderson and Van Damm and the love interest of artiste Maureen and stage hand turned airman Eddie. Tracie Bennett suffuses doughty Mrs Henderson with an extraordinary zest for living, not least in the numbers Whatever Time I Have and Anything But Young, and she captures that marvellous British spirit of no-nonsense eccentricity. Ian Bartholomew's caring Van Damm manages to be at once authoritative and self-deprecating - and not a little surprised at how well his precarious show business is turning out. The plight of Jews in Europe is suddenly placed centre stage when he receives news of the German invasion of Holland and the rounding up of Jews by the Nazis, including his own relatives left behind. Wearing a Star of David armband in solidarity, he expresses his distress in the number Living in a Dream World. There’s fun at his expense too, when Emma Williams’ warm, feisty Maureen challenges all the men in the theatre company to reveal all first if they want the girls to strip off and Mrs Henderson, feigning surprise, exclaims drily “You are Jewish!” Williams displays a lovely dawning realisation as a woman discovering the 'power of her own presence' as Johnson puts it, notably in her full frontal nude castigation of Mr Hitler as the bombs fall, while Matthew Malthouse's Eddie is at his best trying to 'Fred and Ginger' Maureen.
Johnson directs his own story (first seen at the Theatre Royal, Bath, last year) against Tim Shorthall's set that vividly conjures up back and front stage (and roof) of the Windmill, all backcloths and props, superbly lit by Ben Ormerod to suggest both the dinginess of backstage and the bright lights of the front. And there’s a witty single light that comes on above Mrs Henderson's head when she has her ‘lightbulb’ moment - nudity is the way out of their problems! But paradoxically, nude revues need glamorous costumes and Paul Wills comes up with some gorgeous outfits for the revues and lovely period authenticity for the workaday clothing.
It's all good-natured and corny pre-war and war-time chipperness, from the front of cloth comic ("cheeky chappie" Jamie Foreman) to the back-stage crew and dance captain (Samuel Holmes, elegant and waspish in just the right proportions). Robert Hands’s Lord Chamberlain and his secretary (Oliver Jackson) have a lot of fun with the writing team’s homage to Gilbert and Sullivan, the eponymous Lord Chamberlain’s Song. Lizzy Connolly, Lauren Hood and Katie Bernstein as the pioneering statues baring all for raised wages of 30 bob a week are terrific throughout. They give delightful support (no pun intended) in a nifty little number with famous paintings ‘dressing’ the set to demonstrate the high art displayed by those ample Rubens and Renoir nudes. Andrew Wright’s choreography is spot-on convincing for the period – and I guess he gets the credit for those tableaux vivants too. And the music and lyrics team of Fenton, Chamberlain and Black have been around long enough to pastiche the 40's style with panache. They give the music their own original flavour too, never allowing the music to overwhelm lyrics that do a nice job moving on the plot. There's a debate to be had as to whether the portrayal of such nudity in 2016 is inappropriately exploitative or empowering but judging by the response the night I saw the production, audiences are enjoying the fun and sharing it with the cast onstage – clothed and unclothed.
By Judi Herman
Mrs Henderson Presents runs until Saturday 18 June, 7.30pm, £10-£97.50, at Noel Coward Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, WC2N 4AU; 0844 482 5140. www.mrshenderson.co.uk