Mrs Henderson Presents is a new British musical that premièred at Bristol Old Vic and has moved into the Noel Coward Theatre for a limited London run. Based on the 2005 film of the same name, it is the story of wealthy widow Laura Henderson, who famously ran the Windmill Theatre before and during the Second World War. In order to drum up business, the theatre presented tableaux of nude women (in order to get around the censor, they couldn’t move) and during World War II presented an image of defiance by refusing to close even in the face of bombing raids.
As Mrs Henderson, Tracie Bennett does an excellent job. It’s refreshing to see an older woman in a key role on the musical stage, and really she’s the most interesting character in the whole thing. Later in the show, though, the focus changes from Mrs Henderson’s efforts to get the theatre up and running to the life and loves of tea lady Maureen (here portrayed ably by Rhiannon Chesterman, regular Emma Williams being away) and how she is persuaded to forget the tea and become the star of the tableaux.
Yes, the girls really do get their clothes off, but it’s very tastefully done and several of the tableaux are clever and witty. There is also a particularly funny scene in which the men of the theatre are persuaded to strip down themselves in the interests of fairness.
The large cast do an excellent job: Ian Bartholomew is particularly good as theatre manager Vivian Van Damm. I’m not sure the “comedic” interludes between scenes work very well: Jamie Foreman does his best but many of the jokes fall flat and the tone seemed to jar with the rest of the piece. The ending of the musical differs from the film, but the aspect that I never liked sadly remains: without revealing too much, the character of Maureen essentially suffers emotional blackmail which really doesn’t sit well with me at all.
The most important part of any musical as far as I am concerned is the music itself, and I really enjoyed the music of Mrs Henderson Presents, by George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain with lyrics from Don Black. The most memorable song is ‘If Mountains Were Easy To Climb’, but there are other standout numbers too, including the title song. The soundtrack is currently available to buy, and it’s one that I will certainly be adding to my collection.
It’s nice to support new British musicals, but only if they’re actually any good. I’m happy to report that, without being by any means perfect, Mrs Henderson Presents really is good, and I would happily recommend it.