Mrs Henderson Presents

Book by Terry Johnson, lyrics by Don Black, music by George Fenton & Simon Chamberlain, based on the original motion picture screenplay by Martin Sherman
Theatre Royal Bath Productions
Noël Coward Theatre

Emma Williams Credit: Paul Coltas
Ian Bartholomew and Tracie Bennett Credit: Paul Coltas
Tracie Bennett Credit: Paul Coltas

"We Never Close" is simultaneously a song and the ethos that underlies the subject of this rather old-fashioned, traditional British musical.

Visitors will be familiar with the Windmill story from long tradition but also the movie version of this tale, which starred Dame Judi Dench and the late Bob Hoskins, along with Kelly Reilly.

As Terry Johnson (who wrote the book and directs) recognised, if ever there was a tale that was ready made for the West End, this is it. Indeed, after opening at the Theatre Royal in Bath, it has landed only a few hundred yards from the theatre where the drama takes place.

The opening scenes introduce a mis-matched pair whose destiny was to transform the revue and, coincidentally, keep the home fires burning during the Blitz.

Tracie Bennett is the eponymous Mrs Henderson, a wealthy widow with a sense of adventure who decides to plunge her inheritance into a variety theatre in London's Soho.

As producer, she cast Ian Bartholomew's sock-selling Vivian Van Dam, a wily Jewish impresario with vision and daring to match her own.

The bland material that they started out with in 1937 nearly meant curtains within weeks until a light bulb moment (literally). Rather than waste money on costumes, it made far more commercial sense to dispense with clothing, much to the delight of a certain, proliferating kind of punter.

The main obstacle was Robert Hands's Lord Cromer, closer to a Lord High Executioner than a censor in principle but putty in the blackmailing but charming hands of Mrs H.

Having sold the idea to the state, persuading her girls to strip was relatively easy and, in no time, they were performing tasteful tableaux marginally influenced by high art.

The remainder of what is often a sentimental story is relatively predictable but still heart-warming, since the visions of war and its terrible human cost contain considerable pathos, as does the romance that develops between leading lady Maureen and stagehand turned RAF flyer Eddie.

The evening’s glamour and razzmatazz are introduced by a team of girls led by the charismatic Emma Williams in the role of Maureen, a plain Jane or, according to the song, “An Ordinary Girl” suddenly transformed when stardom beckons.

The slapstick and corny comedy of the early scenes give way to some classic song and dance routines, often of the highest quality.

The relatively formulaic plotting is helped no end by some lively choreography and a stream of tuneful and often catchy songs, although none will necessarily leave viewers humming by the next morning. The pick of these is probably “If Mountains Were Easy to Climb”, which really stretches the tonsils of Mesdames Bennett and Williams much to the delight of the audience, although several others including “Whatever Time I Have” prove that Don Black is still one of the best lyricists in town.

Mrs Henderson Presents might just have what it takes to do what dear Laura Henderson managed and conquer the West End for a respectable run, although whether it can live up to the mantra that opened this review might be asking too much.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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