The Windmill Theatre in Soho is a little piece of London’s history, for two main reasons: its proud slogan, ‘We Never Closed’, and – probably even more famously – its naked ladies. Mrs Henderson Presents, originally a movie starring Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins, tells the story of the Windmill, its girls and its eccentric owner in a feel-good, high-energy spectacular that makes you feel proud to be British.
It’s hard to top Dame Judi in pretty much anything, obviously, but Tracie Bennett’s Mrs Henderson is a delight: her prim exterior hides a dry wit and occasional coarseness that’s all the more brilliant for its unexpected appearances. And she can belt out a tune as well, but then we knew that already. The relationship between Mrs Henderson and her manager, Vivian Van Damm (Ian Bartholomew), is lovely to watch – though they drive each other crazy, they also develop a strong and loyal friendship, and it’s not surprising to learn that she left the theatre to him when she died in 1944.
Now, let’s talk naked ladies. The Windmill Girls were known for their nude tableaux vivants, which had to be motionless to get around the Lord Chamberlain and his aversion to wobbly bits (I suspect it may have been a little more complex than that in reality, but let’s move on). Even so, the brave ladies in Terry Johnson’s production are on full display – albeit very tastefully presented – and you have to admire their nerve, particularly since in the one scene where the men get their kit off, they all have music stands or pianos to hide behind. Laura Williams gives a particularly classy performance as Maureen, whose rapid transition from shy, clumsy tea girl to glamorous star of the show is a forgivable stretch of the imagination. Despite the title of the show, this is really Maureen’s story (after the opening scenes, Mrs Henderson’s appearances are few and far between), and Williams steps into the role of leading lady with great dignity.
Though the show certainly leaves you smiling, with infectious tunes by George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain and dazzling choreography from Andrew Wright, it’s not all ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. Though we see little of the war itself (and a few of the characters have a worryingly relaxed attitude about sitting on the roof at the height of the Blitz), there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s a horrible thing, and fortunately the show doesn’t try to. There’s a particularly moving moment when Dutchman Vivian Van Damm, after hearing that his country’s been invaded, sings Living in a Dream World, a song that could just as easily be about our attitude to events happening in the world right now. But through it all, our spirits are bolstered by comedian Jamie Foreman’s terrible (and terribly un-PC) jokes and the general air of defiance; it’s only when this dips briefly in act 2 that the energy of the show does likewise.
Mrs Henderson Presents has a lot more to recommend it than just naked ladies, as attractive as those ladies undoubtedly are. It sums up the Blitz spirit in one glorious image – Maureen, completely naked, giving Hitler the finger and telling him to go back where he came from. It’s a touching love story (featuring possibly the world’s greatest chat-up line) – but not quite the one we might expect. And, most importantly, it’s a lot of fun, and leaves you feeling uplifted and patriotic. You can’t ask for more than that.
Big thanks to LondonTheatre1.com for the opportunity to review the show!