‘Mrs. Henderson Presents’: Theater Review

Nobby Clark
Tracie Bennett in 'Mrs. Henderson Presents'
Life is a topless cabaret, old chum.

This new stage musical is based on the Judi Dench movie about an infamous London theater impresario who shocked the British establishment with full frontal nudity.

An indulgent love letter from British theaterland to itself, Mrs. Henderson Presents is a musical reworking of the 2005 film co-starring Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins. It puts a sugary spin on the true story of Laura Henderson, the eccentric widow who turned London's Windmill Theatre into the home of a notorious nude revue, defying the stuffy moral guardians of the establishment, and famously staying open even as German bombs fell during World War II. Terry Johnson's production is currently on a short premiere run in Bath before a mooted West End transfer, although the location and date for its London launch have yet to be finalized.

The show features full frontal nudity, tastefully staged and artfully lit, which is inevitably being used as a marketing angle. Even so, this is essentially a tame and creaky adaptation of a tame and creaky movie. The safely risqué jokes and schematic plot are aimed squarely at fans of clunky, old-fashioned entertainment in the spirit of Calendar Girls or The Full Monty. And while there's clearly a large potential audience for this kind of mildly titillating, Lloyd Webber-ized populism, Johnson's production has too little of the subversive mischief and joyous lust for life it purports to celebrate.

Though clearly too young to play the 70-year-old heroine, Tracie Bennett makes an agreeable Mrs. Henderson. A multiple award-winner best known for playing Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow, Bennett's lively performance acknowledges Dench but skews more towards Maggie Smith's signature brand of sardonic, imperious wit. Oddly, Johnson makes Henderson almost a supporting character in this production, keeping her offstage for long stretches. The music also undersells Bennett's vocal prowess, as she delivers most of her lyrics in a crisp, semi-spoken manner.

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Ian Bartholomew also musters plenty of world-weary charm in the Hoskins role as Mrs. Henderson's business partner Vivian Van Damm, a bumptious impresario who enjoys a love-hate relationship with his equally strident boss. Their sparky chemistry fuels the best scenes, but the comic energy dissipates during the main subplot, a lukewarm love story between implausibly innocent topless dancer Maureen (Emma Williams) and her thinly sketched stagehand lover Eddie (Matthew Malthouse).

Williams and her fellow showgirls gamely strip off to perform in a handful of musical tableaux with bare breasts and what appear to be discreet fleshtone shields around their groins. All good clean fun, and quite cleverly staged. But in dramatic terms, the young women are lazy stereotypes — either wholesome virgins or saucy good-time girls. Likewise the obligatory gay character, the camp and effeminate Bertie (Samuel Holmes). When tragedy strikes one of the main protagonists in the second act, it barely registers, so depthless are these stock caricatures.

The serviceable, style-hopping score is by George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain. Fenton is known for his extensive film and TV work, including multiple collaborations with Ken Loach and Stephen Frears. Indeed, he wrote several songs for the Frears-directed film of Mrs. Henderson Presents. But this production features all new music, mostly razzle-dazzle vaudevillian thigh-slappers and stiff, stodgy ballads. Larry Blank's eight-piece orchestrations feel a little thin, though a full London production would presumably expand upon the arrangements.

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Fenton's lyrical collaborator is Don Black, the veteran British Oscar and Tony Award winner whose track record includes James Bond themes and Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. Full of inner rhymes and double entendres, Black's lines are wordy and witty, though they mostly raise a wry smile rather than a roar of laughter, and rarely mobilize any deeper emotions. Aside from a stirring a capella number sung by the full cast, the music mostly serves as functional pastiche of jaunty 1930s and '40s variety-show styles. Pleasant but forgettable, with no obvious stand-out anthems.

Tim Shortall's set designs are conventional but quietly impressive, most notably when the theater's backstage is transformed into a London rooftop at sunset, then later a rubble-strewn Tube station during a wartime air raid. During scene changes, cockney music-hall comedian Arthur (Mark Hadfield) keeps the crowd engaged with bawdy jokes and knowing commentary on the action. A few more of these self-aware, almost Brechtian touches might have helped make Mrs. Henderson Presents an engaging reboot rather than a conservative, clichéd trip down Mammary Lane.

Cast: Tracie Bennett, Ian Bartholomew, Emma Williams, Matthew Malthouse, Mark Hadfield, Samuel Holmes, Julie Armstrong, Sarah Bakker, Katie Bernstein, Andrew Bryant, Rhiannon Chesterman, Lizzy Connolly, Alex Delamere, Victoria Hay, Graham Hoadly, Lauren Hood, Oliver Jackson, Kat Kleve, Jane Milligan, Neil Stewart, Dickie Wood
Director: Terry Johnson
Book: Terry Johnson, based on the screenplay by Martin Sherman
Lyrics: Don Black
Music: George Fenton, Simon Chamberlain
Set Designer : Tim Shortall
Costume Designer: Paul Wills
Lighting Designer: Ben Ormerod
Sound Designer: Gareth Owen
Choreographer: Andrew Wright

Orchestrator: Larry Blank
Musical Supervisor, Dance & Vocal Arrangements: Mike Dixon
Presented by Norma Heyman, John Reid, Theatre Royal Bath Productions, Michael Harrison