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The Theatreguide.London Review

Mrs Henderson Presents
Noel Coward Theatre   Spring 2016

This new musical is unpretentious, unmemorable and unnecessary. 

An air of the half-hearted, of settling for just-good-enough hangs over it, and while it is not a total waste of your time, you can probably find better things to spend your ticket money on. 

The book by director Terry Johnson is based on the 2006 movie about Soho's famous Windmill Theatre. 

Wealthy widow Laura Henderson bought the failed cinema in the 1930s and, with impresario Vivian Van Damm, reopened it with a policy of non-stop variety, an all-day mix of singers, comics, novelty acts and pretty girls.

It didn't catch on until the partners found a loophole in the Lord Chamberlain's censorship that allowed full nudity if the girls didn't move (and were thus 'art studies' rather than strippers). 

For the next couple of decades almost entirely male audiences sat through the singers, comics and novelty acts with varying degrees of impatience to satisfy their hunger for art, and the Windmill bragged that even the Blitz couldn't stop the show ('We Never Closed').

It's a fun story, and if told with a little more verve and comic imagination, might have made a sprightly musical. But the overpowering atmosphere is an odd glumness, with more focus on the two partners' ageing and the home front pains of wartime than on the putting-on-a-show adventure. 

The songs – music by George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain (previous credits largely film and TV background music), lyrics by Don Black (several Lloyd Webber shows and James Bond songs) – make little impression. 

The best of them, Mrs Henderson's Whatever Time I Have, is an elegiac variant on Hello Dolly's Before The Parade Passes By, and there are a couple of strong (if not particularly relevant) anti-war songs, and a clever Gilbert-and-Sullivan pastiche for the Lord Chamberlain.

(Part of the reason the songs don't register is to be blamed on the director and musical director, as the singers' enunciation is generally so muddy that any time more than two people are involved in a song Don Black's lyrics are unintelligible.) 

Tracie Bennett sings nicely, dances a bit and generally plays Mrs Henderson as generic feisty old broad, not delving much beneath the surface. Ian Bartholomew finds a few more colours in Van Damm by playing the middle-aged man's regrets that he found this mother lode of pulchritude a little too late in life. 

The basic story is so thin – they open the theatre, come up with the nudes, are a hit – that it has to be padded out with an on-and-off romance of a younger couple, but neither of the younger performers really register and you might have trouble picking them out in the curtain calls. 

A couple of good songs, a few weak jokes, a bit of patriotic sentiment and some naked breasts – Mrs Henderson Presents has just about the same things to offer as the Windmill did eighty years ago, and it's not really enough.

Gerald Berkowitz


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