“Where’s that damn woman?”
That woman is of course Laura Henderson, a rich widow who in 1937 decides to save the Windmill Theatre from closure and together with Jewish entrepreneur Vivian Van Damm, introduces a continuous variety revue called Revudeville. And seeking to keep their nose ahead of their competitors, nudity is added to the bill, a la Moulin Rouge though unprecedented in the UK, but the censorship battles with the Lord Chamberlain’s office pales into insignificance once war breaks out and the theatre becomes a landmark, refusing to close even as London is battered by the Blitz.
Terry Johnson’s book for Mrs Henderson Presents wisely adapts Martin Sherman’s screenplay from the film of the same name to create a more tightly encapsulated world centred on the backstage lives of the theatre folk. It dives straight into the main story from the outset and switches things about just enough to keep anyone familiar with the film on their toes. And George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain’s score dances around the period beautifully, pastiche songs evoking the 30s spirit perfectly with a smattering of vaudevillean fun here and driving musical theatre anthems there, always remaining tuneful.
Johnson’s direction also hits exactly the right bittersweetly British tone. From lighter moments like the actual lightbulb moment to the elegiac beauty of the ghost of Laura’s first love turning into a newly enlisted male character, the shadow of war is expressively explored rather than exploited. And even the potentially dodgy ground of persuading women to strip on the stage is elegantly told here, the decision being reached by the performers themselves and in one of the show’s best scenes, supported by the men of the company begrudgingly stripping in solidarity.
Andrew Wright’s choreography swirls beautifully around the show like the warmth of Mrs Henderson’s fur coat. The Windmill routines are predictably fabulous but it’s the relationships that his dance elucidates that stand out – Laura and Vivian’s amusement of each other in ‘Anything But Young’ or the elegant contours of the putative romance between Maureen and Eddie in ‘What a Waste of a Moon’ (Emma Williams and Matthew Malthouse really impressing in this gorgeous sequence). Here, Wright continues to cement an ever-growing sterling reputation.
It helps that he’s got such a good company to play with. Tracie Bennett’s imbues Mrs Henderson with a magnificent joie de vivre, equal parts mischief and melancholy and her stunning voice remains an absolute pleasure to listen to. Ian Bartholomew’s kindly Vivian is a strong counterpoint, haunted more than most by the outbreak of war. Emma Williams’ Maureen emerges as the star of the show though, blossoming from klutzy tea-lady to the Windmill’s beautifully bold figurehead and in the sustained climax of ‘If Mountains Were Easy To Climb’, nails a genuinely show-stopping moment.
If Mark Hadfield’s end-of-the-pier quasi-narrator doesn’t quite hit the mark, (the stylistic similarity to his divisive Made in Dagenham character didn’t help matters) I had the nagging feeling that the show didn’t really need this component. But it’s a small niggle in what is otherwise a glorious piece of British musical theatre that must surely be in line for a West End transfer sometime soon. Best be safe and make a trip in its final week in Bath.