MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS NOEL COWARD THEATRE SW1

GETTING THEM OFF FOR VICTORY, UP WEST

 
I loved this show at the Theatre Royal, Bath, and – especially given a couple of rather snotty lukewarm reviews – thought I should check it out on its transfer, which runs into the summer. And so it should. For me, it still works.
To recap briefly: it’s 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).

 
And so there is nudity, and very pretty too: I can’t stand alongside those who gloomily regard it as exploitative, not in a world where female nudity of a far more seedy, raunchy variety glimmers at us from every newsstand. The nudity of the Windmill was – and the show makes this beautifully clear – more about an age of comparative innocence, when that nakedness was a precious and sought-after rarity, a dream of love. Particularly for young men who would soon die in war – like the stagehand who falls for the tea-girl turned star, Emma Williams’ sweet Maureen.

 

I also appreciated once more the shape and craft of the show. Terry Johnson’s book (he also directs) gives us a first , longer and at first more frivolous, act, taking us from the mid-30s to the war years, but shades it into a startlingly dark interlude and song when Van Damm (Ian Bartholomew) the Dutch-Jewish impresario, reports the invasion of Holland; then in the Blitz the Windmill is hit, and in a particularly courageous and surprisingly moving moment Emma Williams breaks the no-moving rule – “I’m not standing still for this!” 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.

 

The lyrics by Don Black are sharp, every song serving the story and pushing it forward; the music by George FEnton and Simon Chamberlain is sometimes the best sort of pastiche, sometimes original and moving. And Mrs Henderson herself is the unmatchable 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. So is the memory of the old lady’s dryness, perfectly rendered by Bennett. Up on the roof, wearily firewatching in the Blitz, she is told “You’ll catch your death” she replies “Oh, I think Death’s busy enough elsewhere”.

 
Sweet and sour, nostalgic and sharp, with a kind of unapologetic showbiz honesty, here is another play celebrating the stage (alongside Red Velvet and Nell Gwynn, it’s a bit of an epidemic) . And it celebrates women, too, and defiant ageing. I still like it a lot.

box office 020 7400 1234 to 18 June
rating four

4 Meece Rating

 

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