If there is anything that the West End loves, it is a musical celebrating a British story, a story full of grit, determination and a good dose of fun. That is Mrs Henderson Presents in a nutshell. Add a cheeky dose of on stage nudity and it is no wonder this new British musical was such a hit during it’s limited London run at the Noel Coward Theatre.
Based off of the 2005 film of the same name, Mrs Henderson Presents tells the story of the Windmill Theatre. After the death of her husband, Mrs Laura Henderson (played by Tracie Bennett) buys the run down Windmill Theatre and with the help of producer Vivian Van Damm (played by Ian Bartholomew) hopes to create the greatest vaudeville style show in London. With one little twist, rather than the regular chorus of dancing girls in sparkling outfits, she wants to use naked girls. Set against the back drop of World War Two, this new British musical lifts your spirits, puts a smile on your face and will have you feeling rather patriotic by the closing number.
The show is very much lead by Tracie Bennett, in the title role of Mrs Henderson. She drives the story forward with her determination and passion. Her drive revolves around the fact that she knows that she is getting older and she wants to make the most of what time she has left. She doesn’t want to be a normal widow, living off of her late husbands money. So she puts everything she has into the Windmill Theatre, using her connections to sway the Lord Chamberlain into giving her the licence to put naked girls on stage. Judy Dench played this title role in the film, so Tracie Bennett had big shoes to fill in order to bring the role to the stage but I believe she played the role perfectly. She was able to show Mrs Henderson as a strong leader of the windmill theatre, as well as showing her cheeky side with the performers of ‘revudeville’ and Vivian Van Damm.
Vivian Van Damm is played here by Ian Bartholomew. He is a character who grows and changes throughout the show. He starts as a very serious man, who struggles to see what Mrs Henderson wants to do with the theatre and argues with the passion filled leader. As the show opens, he begins to understand what she is doing and becomes a very caring man. As the war begins and the cast of ‘revedeville’ move into the windmill theatre (which as it is mostly below ground level, is considered very much during the air raids), Vivian and Laura sort of become the mum and dad of the situation becoming very caring of their cast. An important moment for him is during the war. He is the first to really realise that they can’t hide in their little dream world in the theatre. He realises that they have to face up to the real world and what is happening around them.
Mrs Henderson Presents, being a show (in a way) about a show, has quite a large ensemble making up the windmill girls, theatre workers and others. Every character is unique, even if just seen in the background. And I must say, the ensembles numbers such as ‘Mrs Henderson Presents’ and ‘we’ll never close’ are brilliant. Katie Bernstein, Lizzy Connolly and Lauren Hood play the three featured windmill girls Peggy, Doris and Vera who after some convincing from Mr Van Damm agree to strip for the show ‘Rubens and Renoir’. They bring some very funny moments to the show as well as showing their softer sides with Maureen during the touching ‘innocent soldier’. The windmill girls as a group are wonderful especially in the ‘women at war’ medley.
Another much loved character that has made the move from the film to the stage is that of Bertie, played here by Samuel Holmes. He brings great comedy to the piece as well as his great performing as lead male in ‘Revudeville’. It is with Bertie that I most noticed the difference in character development between the film and the show. In the musical it is made quite clear from the beginning that the character of Bertie is gay, whilst in the movie I don’t think it is ever said officially. In the film the reason as to why Bertie didn’t sign up to the army is that he has a heart murmur although it is rather obvious that the rest of the windmill cast know this not to be the case. In the musical, the subject of Bertie not signing up isn’t touched upon. Bertie is played in the show as openly gay with lines such as “come on all us girls together’ and obvious happiness and attraction when Bertie sees fellow theatre worker Eddie naked as they encourage the girls to strip, this is a moment that brings great laughter.
Another important character to of course mention it that of Maureen, played by Emma Williams. Maureen can be considered the main girl as the audience follows her through the show from a shy clumsy tea girl to a confident young women and performer. Her solo ‘if mountains were easy to climb’ is beautiful and inspiring with what the character of Maureen goes though. Emma Williams plays the part beautifully and you really feel for her as she struggles with her relationship with Eddie.
One thing about this show that did confuse me slightly was the fact that the plot of the musical wasn’t the same as that of the film. I’m not complaining, but it was slightly confusing. The musical storyline was great, just not the same. I won’t spoil it in case this great show comes back to the West End at anytime. I, for one, would love to it back in London. It was a wonderful show and I feel that it deserved a longer run. The West End loves British stories, just look at the success of Kinky Boots for example.
In conclusion, I loved this show. It was a lot of fun all whilst being full of heart, balancing the comedy of ‘revedeville’ alongside the tragedy of the war. The cast were great and I throughly believe this lovely show deserved a longer run in the West End. The show, overall, was full of energy. So much energy in places that when Maureen (Emma Williams) did her fall in the opening scene spilling her tea tray, one cup went rolling into the orchestra pit (well done to the keyboard player who caught it). Maybe one day, we will see Mrs Henderson Presents back in London, or a tour perhaps? You never know.