Theatre Royal, Bath
Music by George Fenton & Simon Chamberlain
Lyrics by Don Black
Direction and book by Terry Johnson
A musical can only be as good as its underlying book – and in Mrs Henderson Presents, the show’s fable couldn’t be more strong or poetic. Based upon the 2005 movie, the true story tells of Laura Henderson, wealthy widow and owner of London’s Windmill Theatre, who sought to halt the venue’s falling revenues by putting on shows of naked girls. Britain’s censorship laws were fierce at the time, forbidding nude performers, but in a bid to circumvent the Lord Chamberlain’s disapproval, Henderson, along with close adviser Vivian Van Damm, concoct a revue that will feature naked women but in still life tableaux. The Windmill’s success was assured and as war with Germany broke out in 1939, so did the Windmill never close, always packed with troops enjoying morale boosting visits even through the darkest days of the Blitz and in its own way capturing the essence of British resilience.
The story works on so many levels. Laura Henderson herself is an independently minded woman, ahead of her time. Van Dam is a Dutch Jew, painfully aware of his family’s destiny in continental Europe, the Lord Chamberlain is a deliciously blustering (and compromised) political buffoon (who one can easily imagine lived in Dolphin Square) and then there are the girls. Invited to contemplate performing in the nude, the show picks out their anxieties, aspirations and in the case of Maureen, a Lyons’ nippy who much like Mack and Mabel’s Mabel Normand is discovered by Mrs Henderson and fast becomes the star of the show, a poignant love interest too.
Terry Johnson’s book (and Johnson also directs) in conjunction with Don Black’s lyrics precisely fillets the shows emotions. There’s comedy that includes moments of fabulously rehearsed plank-based slapstick, naked men’s bottoms and a sprinkling of Carry On infused knob gags - a seam of humor which if mined responsibly can always prove eye-watering. But there is also the pathos of Laura Henderson’s love for her theatre and ultimately her girls, set against her own mortality and failing health. There’s the tragedy and passion of the war – and there is the portrayal of the girls’ journey to their nude performances, delivered without pulling any punches, but which is at all times beautiful, tasteful and not once gratuitous.
Making a welcome return to the English stage, Tracie Bennett plays Laura Henderson with her usual perfection in poise, presence and performance. Believable as a wealthy lady bucking the disapproval of her peers, Bennett commands the stage. Vocally magnificent, with Whatever Time I Have, along with a massive finish to If Mountains Were Easy To Climb Bennett reminds us what a star of today’s musical theatre stage she truly is. More of this woman, please.
Ian Bartholomew is Van Dam, bringing a carefully crafted compound of comic bluster with profound pathos to his part. There’s smutty genius in his number Rubens And Renoir, that sees him explaining the concept of nudity to the girls (in a scene that using a hugely oversized picture frame, speaks volumes just in imagery) – whilst Living In A Dream World offers just enough of a carefully weighted glimpse into his agony at what is happening across the North Sea.
Maureen is played by the truly scrumptious Emma Williams – whose voice and movement are exquisite. We see her rise and fall in love and in moments that wrench at heart strings, Williams is always on point, never sentimentalising, just delivering. Her number Ordinary Girl tells of plaintive aspirations, whilst her duet with Matthew Malthouse’s Eddie, What A Waste Of A Moon is a vocal and choreographic treat. Indeed, huge credit to choreographer Andrew Wright who at time brings traditional music hall, gorgeous tap routines and some moments of glorious ballet to the show.
Graham Hoadly’s Lord Cromer, the Lord Chancellor, is yet another turn from this gifted performer that defines comic acting through song, as Mark Hadfield serves up a treat as a stand-up comic, part narrator, part teller of gags that are as old as the hills, yet which still raise a chuckle.
The show’s nudity demands a professional bravura from its actresses and as Williams leads the line, she is ably backed by Katie Bernstein, Lizzy Connolly and Lauren Hood who all bring a respectful, tasteful dignity to their roles – beautifully sung and acted.
George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain have written a score that defines England through the 19th and 20th centuries. There is much of the music-hall in some numbers, whilst the Lord Chamberlain’s Song suggests a nod to Gilbert and Sullivan. Their lampooning of the Germans as the war rolls on and creation of melodies that define a sense of national pride, offer a musical take on history that speaks loud and clear to a modern audience. Theirs’s is beautifully crafted work, alongside Tim Shortall's inspired set design and Richard Mawbey's wonderful wig work.
The orchestra is under Mike Dixon’s baton and it is clear that this gifted music-man has had much to do with the show’s evolution. It was the Dixon and Johnson team (with Bartholomew starring) who last year so wonderfully revived Oh What A Lovely War! At Stratford East and there is just a touch of how that show marked The Great War, in how Mrs Henderson Presents tackles the war with Hitler.
Mrs Henderson Presents is innovative new writing – beautifully staged and so wonderfully British. Only dipping the briefest of toes into Bath’s delightful Theatre Royal, this show demands a transfer to the West End.
Runs until 5th September