MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS Theatre Royal, Bath

GETTING ‘EM OFF FOR VICTORY
Never in the field of TR Bath’s excellent endeavours has so much flesh been displayed with such nerve to so many. Some were, in the interval queue for the Ladies, a bit gobsmacked. “Didn’t expect them to go all the way, dear!”. But it was happy surprise. This is a newborn musical incarnation of the true story made famous in the film with Judi Dench: how a doughty widow bought the Windmill Theatre to put on “Revuedeville” , with the legendary Vivian Van Damme as her manager, and decided to improve its failing fortunes by persuading the showgirls to get naked. She used her formidable respectability to persuade the Lord Chamberlain that it was going to be art not stripping, because once naked the girls wouldn’t move, but represent classical paintings under filmy light (“subtle lighting and a conscientious hairdresser” on the pubes).
So there had to be nudity. The first, longer and more frivolous act, taking us from the mid-30s to the war years, offers plenty, including a few male backstage backsides when the girls taunt manager and staff to go first. That first act ends with a particularly courageous and surprisingly moving moment as Emma Williams as Maureen, tea-girl turned star, breaks the rule and steps forward starkers as the bombs fall to finish the defiant anti-Hitler number “He’s got another think coming” after the male singer falters.
It is the warmest and most engaging of shows, the book deftly managed by director Terry Johnson to take in the comedy,the bleakness and the camaraderie as a leg-show turned into a kind of mission. Sharp dialogue helps dilute any tendency to the saccharine: when van Damm says “We must fortify London in a way that sandbags cannot” Mrs Henderson snaps “Mr Churchill will be so glad you’re on his side”. The lyrics are by Don Black, always a safe pair of rhymes (the moment Mrs H. sings to her gloomy Jewish partner that she is “Au fait with Oy Vay” this connoisseur sits back contented.)
There is great fun in the vaudeville auditions, even greater in Graham Hoadly as the Lord Chamberlain, very Gilbert-and-Sullivan beneath the Victoria Memorial. And some of the songs (composed by George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain) are properly notable: plaintive or roistering but always neat, sharp and pushing the emotional line of the piece forward as they should. Mrs Henderson herself is the peerless Tracie Bennett: lately a memorable Judy Garland but here deploying a sharp, acid wit, convincingly aged as a patron saint for all women determined to get a bit of fun out of their latter years . “I can be anything I want – except young”. That’s an song which could last.
She is beautifully counterpointed by Ian Bartholomew as Van Damm, who has the difficult transition to make from cynical impresario to shock and depression at the invasion of his native Holland. But the balance of sweet-sour sentiment is always kept neatly: when up on the roof, firewatching in the Blitz, our heroine is told “You’ll catch your death” she replies “Oh, I think Death’s busy enough elsewhere”. Nice. This one’ll live on.

box office 01225 448844 / theatreroyal.org.uk to 5 September
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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