Mrs Henderson Presents (Bath Theatre Royal) ***

The cast of Mrs Henderson Presents. Photo by Nobby Clarke

The cast of Mrs Henderson Presents. Photo by Nobby Clarke

As the bombs fell over London during the Second World War only one theatre remained standing. The Windmill Club, alone in the theatrical establishment, kept the British morale (ahem) ‘up’ with its twice nightly shows of English roses in the buff posing like the classical nudes of antiquity. Thirty years before Kenneth Tynan presented his own nude revues in the West End, widower Laura Henderson and businessman Vivian Van Damm took on the Lord Chamberlain and his censorious pen and won their own little victory. Adapted from the small and charming 2005 film, Theatre Royal Bath’s production has the same quaint feel. This is its strength as well as its weakness.

Terry Johnson‘s production embraces the eccentricity of the English pier revue show and reveals Johnson to be the spiritual heir to Joan Littlewood. There is nothing here scandalous enough to send the red tops into fits of frothing rage however. Its scenes of full frontal nudity are Weymouth postcard cheeky rather than the sleazier Windmill of today, gorgeously tableauxed and lit by Ben Omerod to reveal the girls as goddesses straight out of a Renoir painting. In an age where arousal can be obtained with one click, it’s surprising to think these acts would ever have been titillating to soldiers, even with the girls being as fetching as they are here.

The show is presumably West End bound but I wonder if it is quite robust enough just yet. In its favour are Don Black‘s witty turns of phrase; at one point the Lord Chamberlain listing a number of shows that have been rejected includes “a left wing Charlie’s Aunt with a homosexual bent.”

And there are three cracking performances in the lead roles. Tracie Bennett as the titular Mrs Henderson is really a supporting role here and though way too young for the role she brings a sense of Judi Dench from the film in a gravelly voiced turn that grounds the show in a sense both of fun and wistfulness. Ian Bartholomew gives Van Damm a sense of gruff business nous and guilt over providing fantasies as his country falls into the hands of the fascists.

Standing at its centre though is Emma Williams, introduced as an accident-prone tea maker but soon being promoted to lead the girl’s ranks when she has a ‘Marilyn’ moment involving a fan. Williams has long been one of our finest and most fearless young actress’ and she is superb again here, with a voice that melts hearts and an arc that sees her trajectory go from shy door mouse to striding forward fully naked in an act of defiance against the bombings occurring all around her. If the show does get to town it’s a performance that deserves to finally win her a long overdue Olivier. Finally Andrew Wright‘s choreography – as so often in recent times – is a dazzling cacophony, mixing tap, burlesque and revue into a number of well drilled highlights.

There are issues that need to be addressed though. The light hearted knockabout work of the first half makes way for a flatter second as though the more serious issues that arise as war breaks out suck the energy out of the piece. Some of the character roles are barely pencilled in which means the emotion that we’re asked to feel for certain characters is not earned. Mark Hadfield as the compere finds himself in the unfortunate position of reminding one of the clown parts in Shakespeare, working hard but to ultimately tiresome effect. Finally George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain‘s score, full of vaudevillian razzmatazz and slower ballads in the second half is workmanlike, with only Williams’ 11 o’clock ode to the dead soldier being particularly memorable on first listen.

Still this can be rectified and tightened before any move into town. Even if I fear for its commercial prospects I have a feeling this could be a regional staple for years to come. Charming, a little bit naughty and full of heart, it’s as English as it comes and in an age of the international brand musical it would be a welcome addition to the West End repertoire.

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