Writer and Director:Terry Johnson
Composers: George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain
Lyricist: Don Black
Choreographer: Andrew Wright
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
During World War II, Laura Henderson’s Windmill Theatre – opened on a whim with the money she inherited from her late husband – remained open while the bombs fell on the West End. It was partly the lack of other entertainments that made the venue so popular with servicemen, but mostly because of the type of artistic endeavours on stage – fully nude women. In order to circumvent the Lord Chamberlain’s censorious oversight, Mrs Henderson’s girls were famously presented in static tableaux, making them more art than theatre.
The story of the Windmill was told in Mrs Henderson Presents, Stephen Frears’ 2005 film starring Judi Dench, whose screenplay by Martin Sherman forms the basis of writer/director Terry Johnson’s musical adaptation. The result is an odd thing – an old-fashioned behind-the-scenes stage musical that hits many high notes while dropping one or two clangers, twinned with a sense of wartime despair to act as the shade to the Windmill’s light entertainment.
The book is at its best when moving quickly, ushering in the next song while the last note of the previous one is still to reach the gods. After a heavy-handed (and far too long) expository scene in which all the main protagonists are introduced, the first full song and dance sequence promises much – with enjoyable tap sequences, glorious singing and a sense of period entertainment that suggests the West End is witnessing the birth of a British 42nd Street. And yet after every great song sequence, there are moments where the momentum crashes to a blinding halt, most notably through the clumsily applied use of Jamie Foreman’s stand-up Arthur to narrate various jumps in time. Foreman’s comedy patter is of the standard of the era, to be sure – but he never quite manages to land the punchline, and his timing always seems a little off.
Where the show does work superbly is in the casting of its principals. Tracie Bennett is charming as the devil-may-care older woman who embraces her new life as a theatre owner with relish, while Ian Bartholomew as her combative manager, Vivian Van Damm, elevates the character’s more pensive numbers – especially Living in a Dream World, sung as the war takes hold and the Nazis occupy his native Netherlands. There is strong support, too, from the ensemble, most notably Samuel Holmes’ Bertie, who demonstrates such a fine tenor voice and exemplary dance skills that it is a crying shame he is underused in the second act.
But the standout performance is delivered by Emma Williams as Maureen, the former tea girl who moves up to become the Windmill’s central nude performer. From her slapstick entrance to a gloriously choreographed hesitancy in her first dance, to rallying the girls (and the men) of the theatre to have the bravery to bare all, Maureen’s character arc could feel ridiculous and stereotypical. Williams’ portrayal prevents any such doubts, imbuing both her character and others around her with so much heart that, at times, it feels like the show is only working correctly when she is on stage.
And while the songs – written by George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain, with lyrics by Don Black – range from the serviceable to the very good (the 11 o’clock number If Mountains Were Easy To Climb being an example of the latter), ultimately the story that hangs them together struggles. Despite the wartime setting, the stakes never feel quite high enough; the risk of losing it all is always too far away.
Mrs Henderson Presents is still a fine evening of entertainment, and its representation of a more innocent, and reserved, attitude to nudity is faithful to the spirit of the time. But in the 21st Century where the site of the Windmill is now home to dancing of a substantially more sexual nature, and where undressing to express one’s empowerment and self-belief is better expressed by Calendar Girls, it feels like the Windmill’s motto of “we never closed” is not one that shall be staying around the Noël Coward theatre for too long.
Booking until18 June 2016 | Image: Paul Coltas
For further information:www.mrshenderson.co.uk