Rating : * * * *
How delicious! 'Mrs Henderson Presents' is a new British musical with an old-school and nostalgic feel. Based on the 2005 film which starred Dame Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins, the stage adaptation marks the West End return of two-time Olivier winner and Tony nominee Tracie Bennett. Having wowed audiences and critics alike with her turn as Judy Garland in
the acclaimed production of 'End of the Rainbow' on both sides of the Atlantic, Ms Bennett now dons a grey wig and fur coat to take on the role of the considerably older matriarch of the nude revue, Laura Henderson. What versatility this performer has as an actress. You might not be able to find her vocal singing tones under the 'Easy Listening' section of a record shop, but her brassy, belting out manner definitely has something infectious about it. She is perfectly complimented by a show-stealing performance by Emma Williams as Maureen - a clumsy, tea-girl-turned-nude-tableau-goddess - whose sweet and enticing vocal, along with a moving vulnerability, make her the toast of the night.
For those unaware, 'Mrs Henderson Presents' is based on a true story and charts the rise of the Windmill Theatre in Soho before and during World War II. Eccentric, rich widow Laura Henderson has just purchased the theatre in the hopes of reinvigorating it (and herself along the way). She hires a down-on-his-luck Jewish, Theatre manager named Vivian Van Damm (Ian Bartholomew) and forms an interesting business relationship. (Unlike the film, the romantic flirtations and the fact Van Damm is married are excluded from the musical). The Windmill decides to put on a non-stop Vaudeville show under the name of "Revudeville," but quickly comes into commercial ruin until Mrs Henderson recalls her visit to the Moulin Rouge in Paris and (literally) has a light bulb moment on stage. She will present Britain's first nude revue and keep the theatre open (and the girls' clothes off) no matter what. Not even Herr Hitler's Luftwaffe bombs will force the theatre's doors to close, as the Windmill girls attempt to entertain young soldiers and boost morale in a dark and desperate time for London.
There is obviously a great deal of naked, female flesh on display in 'Mrs Henderson Presents' - and an unequal spattering of naked male flesh too - which may infuriate feminists, but this is a true depiction of that era (which is sadly still reflected by today's society) and the show's book by Terry Johnson does a splendid job of giving depth to the Windmill girls' characters. We do not see them as one-dimensional, oppressed objects to be gawped at, but as vibrant women with personalities who have made a choice to perform nude, remain in control and empower themselves. Indeed they force the men to get naked on stage, before a single breast is unveiled. A special mention too goes to Lizzy Connolly for her comic efforts in portraying the delightfully blunt and call-a-spade-a-spade Northern character of Doris. Brilliant!
George Fenton, Simon Chamberlain and Don Black's score is whimsically old school. The melodies might not be instantly catchy or remain with you afterwards, but the songs trigger your emotions in the moment. Bennett's rendition of "Whatever Time I Have" is a true anthem for all those who find themselves in their advanced years, still striving to seize the day.
The show isn't without its problems. The second half tends to lose some pace compared with the first and the inclusion of the comedian character Arthur (played by an overwhelmed Jamie Foreman) is somewhat baffling. Some of his jokes fall flat and the need to constantly break the fourth wall, informing us what is going on and even how long we have left until the interval is completely needless and slows down the overall pace. Also, why Terry Johnson's direction of the token gay male character Bertie insists on an overly effeminate performance to garner a cheap laugh from the audience is beyond me. Will Young's portrayal in the movie was that of a courteous and polite young man, who just happened to be gay, and that was much more refreshing.
However, after it's all said and done and the bombs and the garments have dropped, this show feels like a quintessentially British affair that I hope will have a longer-lasting appeal than recent well-received but commercially unsuccessful British-movie-to-British-musical adaptations such as 'Made In Dagenham' or 'Bend It Like Beckham.' Mrs Henderson Presents a welcome addition to the West End.