"It made me proud to be British"
This celebration of the indomitable British spirit is based on the film which starred Judi Dench as the redoubtable Mrs Laura Henderson, the woman who first brought female nudity to the London stage. It is quite simply a triumph. With the Second World War looming, rich widow Mrs Henderson (Tracie Bennett) buys a decrepit theatre and hires Vivian Van Damm (Ian Bartholomew) to run it, putting on revue shows with the usual leggy girls, comics and magicians.
But business is poor and her losses crippling until she has an idea, symbolised superbly by a perfectly placed lightbulb above her head: nude girls, acceptable to the censor as long as they don’t move or, er, wobble.
Bums on stage mean bums on seats and business is soon booming. The booming continues with the start of the Blitz and Mrs Henderson’s mantra: “We never close”. Don Black’s smart lyrics are beautifully framed by music reflecting the era including comic songs, romantic ballads and girl-group harmonies.
Andrew Wright’s choreography is bang on the money, throwing in ballet steps for the effete Bertie (Samuel Holmes) and hilarious Masonic contortions for theatre censor Lord Cromer (Robert Hands). Johnson, who also wrote the musical’s book, keeps the stage humming with activity and his control of tone is extraordinary.
The darker issues of wartime pregnancy and Van Damm’s Jewishness arise naturally from the story and the interplay of character. And there is nothing coy about the big moment when the girls first disrobe, having made the men disrobe first for the sake of parity.
The stage seems to thrum with an erotic innocence that must have echoed the original revues. The cast, including Jamie Foreman’s authentic “Now then! Now then!” comic, Bennett’s no-nonsense heroine and the girls themselves are superb, capturing the era as well as their characters. The original Windmill Girls came on stage to a standing ovation at the premiere. It made me proud to be British.
Author: Neil Norman
"Joyus musical fun...It's a winner!"
"New British musical suffused with charm, warmth and sincerity"
In 2014, director Terry Johnson revived Joan Littlewood's famous revue Oh What A Lovely War, about the First World War, at its original home at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. Now he moves to the Second World War for a similarly affectionate yet simultaneously gritty portrait of a resilient real-life theatre, the Windmill, the only one in the capital to stay open at the height of the Blitz, living up to its motto: "We never close!"
If the effect is to provide a kind of mirror to his earlier show, also echoing its music hall storytelling techniques and even sharing an actor in Ian Bartholomew, who appears in both, Mrs Henderson Presents is the more conventional, old-fashioned production, but none the worse for it.
Littlewood's show is a bracing polemic on the sheer pointlessness of war. This musical, based on the 2005 film of the same name, is more soft-centred, even though it doesn't shy from occasional hard edges. Instead, by concentrating on the backstage lives of the dancers and management of the Windmill, there's more of a jaunty, frequently patriotic, flavour to it – that both sings and occasionally stings.
The score, with its music by Simon Chamberlain (who was musical director on the original film) and George Fenton and veteran lyricist Don Black, has an easy, accessible pastiche quality, in a similar vein to The Boy Friend, that channels composers who were active at the time, like Ivor Novello and Vivian Ellis. It comes into its own a couple of times as an original work, thanks to the soaring melodic quality that Emma Williams brings to songs like If Mountains Were Easy to Climb, or the touching sincerity of Ian Bartholomew in Living in a Dream World.
While shows like Calendar Girls and The Full Monty, both of which coincidentally also played at the Noel Coward, coyly didn't quite show all – the girls in the former hid behind buns and other objects, the boys in the latter had their modesty protected by a blinding light at the key moment – there's no such inhibition here, with the girls showing all.
But there's nothing salacious about it. In fact there's something sweetly innocent about it; I'm happy to report that this show is no bomb, but scores a direct hit of its own.
Author: Mark Shenton
"A story of showbiz survival against the odds"
"It's a celebration of a chapter of theatre history, of blitz spirit and an early demonstration of girl power"
"Unashamedly entertaining! I have not emerged from a theatre feeling quite so cheerful for a long time"
Pass the opera glasses, Perkins. But they might be steamed up at Mrs Henderson Presents, an unashamedly entertaining musical about the old Windmill Theatre in London where young women posed in nude tableaux.
You may recall a film of this story a decade ago which starred Dame Judi Dench and the late Bob Hoskins.
Mrs Henderson is an elderly widow who uses the fortune left by her husband to buy a theatre in Central London in 1937.
When the punters prove resistant to its offer of revue shows, she hits on an idea of stripping her showgirls to their birthday suits. But how to get round the Lord Chamberlain and his censorship decrees?
Simple: she announces that her girls will not wobble a muscle. Not so much as a cheek will jelly-quiver. They will pose entirely still and thus will be as inoffensive as the classical nudes on display at fine-art galleries.
This production, directed by its writer Terry Johnson, has music by George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain and lyrics by Don Black. The tunes may not be in the very highest category but they are more than workmanlike and the lyrics witty. One song, If Mountains Were Easy To Climb, elicits tears.
Janie Dee was originally cast as the intrepid Mrs H but she withdrew early in the process. Her place has been taken by Tracie Bennett who is great fun. She could never be accused of underacting but who could fail to be drawn to this short, husky-voiced ball of mercy? I kept thinking it was Elaine Paige.
The nude shows pack in the audiences but war arrives and the Windmill entertains the troops through London’s bleakest Blitz nights. The theatre’s stage hand, Eddie (Matthew Malthouse) joins the RAF. Will he be missed by the show’s frustratingly chaste leading lady, Maureen? Will Eddie survive?
Ian Bartholomew does a decent turn as Mr Van Damm, the show’s director, and there is a lovely turn — albeit worryingly pink-faced — from Graham Hoadly as the Lord Chamberlain. The show is stolen by the Windmill girls, most of all by Emma Williams as Maureen.
What a voice, I feel bound to say. What stage presence, duty compels me to report. What a hairdo. Yes, yes, yes. But what a figure, too!
Oh, I know we men are not meant to ogle but what can one do but gawp in dry-throated admiration at Maureen and Doris and Vera and Peggy (the last being played by Katie Bernstein, another strong voice)?
They shed their garments and strike Greek poses and it is surely not just old chaps whose eyes will swivel like fruit-machine dials. It is not smutty. It is (pause for pigeon-cooing from your critic) beautiful. And often deliciously funny, even patriotic.
Mark Hadfield does some of his customary comedy stuff — few actors move with greater comic efficiency — and Samuel Holmes has some great moments as gay Bertie, the token boy.
High dramatic art? Maybe not. But I have not emerged from a theatre feeling quite so cheerful for a long time.
Author: Quentin Letts
"It's as bright as a showgirl's sequin and patriotic as a jam sandwich"
"A shot in the arm for the British musical"
Nominated for four Olivier Awards, Mrs Henderson Presents is a hilarious five star musical based on the 2005 film starring Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins.
Mrs Henderson Presents takes us to a dreary London in 1937. We meet Laura Henderson, a recently widowed Londoner, hopelessly searching for a way to spend her time and money. Circumstances lead her to the renovation of a theatre, and she recruits a feisty impresario, Vivian Van Damm, to present a bill of show-stopping acts. As war looms and box office sales struggle, Mrs Henderson has an idea... The Windmill Girls! She gathers a glamorous group of nude females to pose as statues and before long the audience flocks!
With book and direction by the Tony Award-winning Terry Johnson (La Cage Aux Folles), choreography by Andrew Wright (Singin’ in the Rain, Guys and Dolls), lyrics by the multi-award-winning Don Black (Sunset Boulevard) and music by George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain, this extraordinary and heartwarming new production stars Olivier-winner Tracie Bennett (Les Misérables, End of the Rainbow, ITV’s Coronation Street), Olivier-nominated Ian Bartholomew (Into the Woods) and Olivier-nominated Emma Williams (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang).
“Bruno Wang Productions have hugely enjoyed co-producing such an energetic, heart-warming and high-spirited British musical,’’ says Mr Wang. ‘’The show portrays a group of courageous individuals celebrating life in the face of adversity.
The war affected their day to day lives but never their spirits, there are poignant parallels to our lives under today’s current climate."