|By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN
Let’s face it, It takes enormous courage and a death-defying devil-may-care approach to the theatre to mount a musical in 2016 that stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the strides made in this most lucrative of genres since A Chorus Line broke the mould in 1974. But that’s precisely what the creators of Mrs Henderson Presents have brought to their enterprise.
Watching their nostalgic show unfurl you’d never know that blockbusters like Matilda, The Lion King, Wicked, The Book of Mormon and Hamilton (currently the biggest hit on Broadway) have happened. In fact, Mrs Henderson Presents – with a book by Terry Johnson, music by George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain, and lyrics by Don Black – is so relentlessly old fashioned, even down to scenes being played in front of a curtain while a set-change is taking place behind it, there is something fearlessly endearing about their blatantly retro approach.
Could there, perhaps, be a method to their madness? To a degree. For starters, there is nothing new about the material. It’s the well-known story of how, in the early 30s, a wealthy widow, Laura Henderson (Tracie Bennett), and her business partner-cum-manager Vivian Van Damm (Ian Bartholomew) turned an ailing 326-seat playhouse into a theatre dedicated to non-stop variety known as Revudeville, with five performances a day. By the end of 30s however, audiences – due to the ever-increasing popularity of the cinema – dropped dramatically, and were it not for an idea dreamed up by the indomitable Mrs H, the theatre would have been forced to close.
The idea she had was simple but revolutionary. Her showgirls would appear in the nude – not, as the censorious Lord Chamberlain insisted, to titillate, but as artistic tableau vivants in which they had to adopt a frozen posture and never move. It was a game-changing innovation and saved the Windmill from bankruptcy. Even more remarkable was the fact that throughout the World War II, despite the blitz and the bombings, the theatre remained open, boasting, “We never closed.”
A remarkable story, to be sure. Indeed, 60 years before the 2005 film was released, a flashy, Technicolor Hollywood musical called Tonight and Every Night starring Rita Hayworth offered an (inappropriately lavish) version of Mrs Henderson’s achievements.
This more modest incarnation adds a romantic sub-plot between stagehand Eddie (Matthew Malthouse) and showgirl Maureen (Emma Williams), who discovers she is pregnant after Eddie enlists and is killed when his plane crash-lands. The problem is that Johnson’s often witty book is all too predictable. Very little background is given to Van Damm and even less to Mrs H. As characters, they’re insufficiently developed.
Though a variety of emotions infiltrate the songs they’re given, the sentiments expressed are clichés – as is much of the score. Fenton and Chamberlain’s pastiche tunes have a jaunty familiarity about them, and on several occasions, I felt I could hum them after the first few bars. Black’s lyrics, while thoroughly professional, never venture out of their cosy comfort zone. What you hear emerging from the orchestra pit and the singer’s mouths are hardly the sounds of new ground being broken.
That said, there have, of late, been inferior British musicals than this. The dance routines are engagingly staged by Andrew Wright. Tim Shortall’s sets, redolent of the period (and the Windmill’s modest budget) are serviceable, and the trio of central performances from Bennett, Bartholomew and Williams, while shy on star wattage, maximise whatever opportunities they’re given in Johnson’s pared down book.
It's no world-beater, but in its evocation of an entertainment era long past, and as a celebration of the British fighting spirit during WWII – both well captured in Johnson’s solid, confident direction – Mrs Henderson will certainly have her fans.