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Mrs Henderson Presents Emma Williams in Mrs Henderson Presents
Photo: Nobby-Clark

Mrs Henderson Presents
Book by Terry Johnson
Lyrics by Don Black
Music by George Fenton & Simon Chamberlain
Reviewed by Michael Burland

"Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball" said Jacques Barzun, his quote inscribed on the entrance to the Baseball Hall of Fame. The British version could well be "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of Britain had better study the Blitz".

The period in which Britain stood alone against the might of Nazi Germany and suffered daily – and nightly – bombing raids lives on in the UK's national consciousness and exemplifies a doughty resilience powered by humor and a refusal to bow down to oppression. Nothing summed up the Blitz spirit better than the true story of the Windmill Theatre.

This new musical, based on the Judy Dench-led movie and set in that period, could have been concocted at any time since the War. The move from silver screen to the boards works, in fact the story is arguably better told live and with songs, complete with live band. Tim Shorthall's clever set helps, our point of view switching from the performers' to the Windmill's audience’s in a trice.

It's 1937 and the eponymous Mrs H (a feisty Tracie Bennett who can belt out a song while telling a story) has been left a bunch of money by her late husband. She rejects the idea of giving it all to a donkey sanctuary, opting instead to buy an ailing Soho cinema and turn it into a review (Vaudeville) theatre. She obviously hadn't heard that the way to make a small fortune in theater is to start with a large one. Keen, but knowing nothing about showbiz she hires Vivian Van Damm, a Dutch-Jewish low-rent impresario currently selling socks on the street, to run the joint. A stormy relationship predictably ensues.

Equally predictably, the show is a bust, losing Mrs H's cash at a ferocious rate, especially all those expensive costumes. Until she has a bright idea - look out for her lightbulb moment! It's no spoiler moment to say that costumes are no longer a worry. Nude review is born. Surprisingly, just as in 1930s and '40s Britain, full nudity onstage still has the power to cause an intake of breath. Emma Williams's Maureen, the teagirl-turned-star-turn is at once brave and totally believable here. Her would-be suitor Eddie, who goes off to war, is played by a slightly static yet appealingly naive Matthew Malthouse

Mrs Henderson Presents Tracie Bennett (Mrs Henderson) and Ian Bartholomew (Van Damm)
Photo: Nobby-Clark

George Fenton & Simon Chamberlain's tunes are classic – no 'disco' reinventing of the past here. 'Whatever Time I Have' is a potential modern standard, and the 'Lord Chamberlain's Song' could be Gilbert & Sullivan complete with hilarious dance moves.

Ian Bartholomew's Van Damm drives the overall plot arc, convincing the girls to strip off tastefully in tableaux, no movement allowed (it's art, donchaknow?) to placate a skeptical Lord Chamberlain (Graham Hoadly), the censor who could and did ban theatricals on a prudish whim. Van Damm's Jewishness becomes a window through which we see the horrors of wartime Europe, and his and Mrs Henderson's ages contrast with the effervescent youngsters in The Windmill's cast – the passing of time is a recurring subtheme. With that, and the war hitting harder, the start of the Act 2 cannot be as perky and upbeat as the first half despite Terry Johnson's assured direction, but all is resolved and the big numbers tail the show satisfactorily. It's a real feel-good show, with no apologies.

A musical that is ultra-British yet attractive to anyone? Classic songs that you can whistle? I can't see this not being a West End and – who knows? - even Broadway hit.

Tickets: www.theatreroyal.org.uk


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