It’s London, 1937, and recently widowed Laura Henderson just bought a theatre. Mrs Henderson Presents premiered in 2015 at the Theatre Royal Bath and now transfers to the West End’s Noel Coward Theatre. I snuck in during London previews a few days before press night to see if everything was tickety-boo.
Everything starts out just swell – a rousing overture is played to perfection from the pit. The music (George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain) evokes the kind of nostalgia that works fantastically in counterpoint to the slightly risqué nature of the show. Don Black’s lyrics are classy and effortless if not always inspired.
With book and direction by the Tony Award-winning Terry Johnson (La Cage Aux Folles), Mrs Henderson Presents starts backstage at the Windmill Theatre. Sadly, the Mrs Henderson here is not the fully rounded character that we saw on film. During the extended opening of the show’s titular “Mrs Henderson Presents” we find out that Mrs Henderson has bought a theatre, although we’re none the wiser to why. There are lots of plank-gags, which are funny if a little clichéd.
Tracie Bennett (Mrs Henderson) is on smoky-voiced form – any more smouldering and she’d probably combust. Bennett’s vocal style can be quite hard and where that worked so well in her Olivier Award nominated performance as a troubled Judy Garland, here it’s too brash. Ian Bartholomew (Vivian Van Damm) is in fine voice but there just isn’t the chemistry between his character and Bennett’s to lift this show up into the stratosphere.
With war looming and audiences needing a boost, Mrs Henderson comes up with the idea of The Windmill Girls – glamorous chorus girls posing as nude statues. Unsurprisingly, it turns out to be a rather unpopular idea with the girls but very popular indeed with audiences.
Lord Cromer, The Lord Chamberlain (Robert Hands) acquiesces, provided the nudity is static (nothing to do with some photos of him in a compromising position). In fact for a Lord Chamberlain, he’s a bit of a pushover and his promise to “…shut you down if any titties move!” is only mildly threatening.
It’s the boys who are the first to reveal all during a riotously funny strip scene. It’s also the first (though not the last) time that the whole cast is upstaged by Samuel Holmes’s Bertie. Always just the right side of bitchy, Holmes is vulnerable and strangely alluring, and his presence as a male “chorus girl” prevents the show from ever seeming titillating or misogynistic.
Bertie is, of course, a character at odds with the social norms of the time. While Mrs Henderson embraces Bertie’s sexuality with a twinkle in her eye, the script owes us something rather wittier than Bertie “bowling from the pavilion end” and there’s a missed opportunity to give Bertie more than just a small supporting role.
Mrs Henderson works best when it entertains – which it does with gusto. Sadly it too often gets bogged down in war weariness. Act two rather bashes you over the head with WWII. There’s a noble but tedious song about being Jewish in wartime, and when young Eddie (skilfully played by Matthew Malthouse) is drafted and a Nazi appears, the plot becomes a little predictable. Fortunately the women keep it upbead “You can tell Hitler, we’re not bloody budging” and you can tell that even when they’re naked, they mean it.
The female cast act, sing and dance their socks off – sometimes literally. The stand-out performance in the show is another Olivier nominee, Emma Williams as Maureen. Williams sparkles with vocals as pure as glass and a figure that most women would kill for.
Williams’ rendition of “If Mountains Were Easy To Climb” will live longer than either Mrs Henderson or the show which bears her name. The shameful condemnation of unmarried mothers, particularly those whose loved ones had been torn away by war is something we would all do well to remember, and something which Williams portrays with an aching compassion.
A very pretty ending with fountains and a rousing musical finale lighten the mood and send you off out into the London night with a spring in your step.
Mrs Henderson is a flawed show with a tremendous heart. We’ll have to wait and see how prophetic one of the shows more rousing numbers “We’ll Never Close” turns out to be. The ending is certainly terrific fun and if they can put the book right, it could be just what the West End needs.
Mrs Henderson Presents
Noel Coward Theatre from 9 February 2016