It’s between World Wars in the Twentieth Century. London. The Windmill Theatre is not doing such good business. The owner has an idea: save money on costumes and introduce classical, decorative nudity. The keeper of morals, the Lord Chamberlain agrees, after a bit of sleight of hand. The deal is done, the stage is set – just a question of convincing the young ladies that nudity is part and parcel of their on stage activities.
Not surprisingly, the ladies take some convincing; some run away, refusing to be unclothed in public. But shy Maureen thinks it is a good idea and agrees to do it and other girls follow her lead.
The moment comes. The director wants the ladies to disrobe. At the final hurdle, Maureen baulks, seeks reassurance. Why should they be the only ones naked? Why shouldn’t the men strip off too? An early blow for gender equality; resisted by the men. Until Bertie decides what the heck, they can all be girls together. And off go his clothes to the astonishment of the men onstage. He stands there, utterly naked, enjoying the attention. The other men can’t be upstaged by an homosexual and so one, by one, in Calendar Girls fashion, with objects covering their manhood, they too disrobe. So far, there have been bare bottoms and bare chests, but genitals have remained safely out of view (except possibly to watchful eyes in a balcony or at the extreme sides of the theatre). It’s good humoured, faux nudity.
Following the lead of the men, the ladies disrobe. When the scene eventually plays out in the show they are staging at The Windmill, the women are quite still, quite extraordinarily beautiful, and quite quite nude. All of them. Hair removed, utterly exposed – like goddesses from a Renaissance painting. They are much braver than the menfolk, these ladies – their genitalia gets full spotlight exposure. No Calendar Girls modesty for them.
And, of course, that is the very point.
This is the new British musical, Mrs Henderson Presents, based on the successful 2005 film (screenplay by Martin Sherman) of the same name, with a book by Terry Johnson, lyrics from Don Black, and a score penned by George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain, now playing its premiere season at the Theatre Royal Bath in a production helmed by Johnson. With choreography from Andrew Wright, musical direction from Mike Dixon and orchestrations courtesy of Larry Blank, Johnson’s production is a triumph in every respect.
The score from Fenton and Chamberlain is a true delight. There are pastiche numbers that might have been written by Cole Porter or Richard Rodgers as well as zippy tunes in the Vaudeville style and some big, lush anthems. Tuneful and melodic, the score is full of musical joy. Standout numbers include What A Waste Of A Moon, Ordinary Girl, Perfect Dream, Living In A Dream World, He’s Got Another Think Coming, Anything But Young and If Mountains Were Easy To Climb. Even jolly banter tunes like We Never Closed and Everybody Loves The Windmillfizz and sparkle with genuine delight. These are songs which feel fresh, but which also work entirely as period music from the 1930s.
Larry Blank’s orchestrations are as splendid as ever, but Dixon only has a small 8 piece band to play with. They handle everything with robust and gleeful energy, but there is no denying that the score would benefit from larger orchestral support – a proper string section and fuller brass for the jazzier aspects of the score. Dixon does an excellent job in selling the music and ensuring there is proper balance between singer and instrument. These are tunes you can hum and clap along with, and you leave the auditorium wishing you could buy an album and listen to the score again and again.
In part, this is because Don Black is in excellent form. His lyrics are crisp and joyful, occasionally dirty, but always diverting and clever. He avoids unnecessary sentimentality but allows character and situation to govern the words which are sung.
Terry Johnson’s book reworks the film screenplay in several ways, all for the better given this is a musical. There are new characters and different emphases, but the sense of frivolous, exuberant fun the film captured is readily reproduced here. Johnson adds a more serious theatricality to the narrative by his focus on the backstage characters of the theatre. This works very well. He also uses a sort of narrator device to frame the story; another excellent and very theatrical idea, which only falters due to the actual skill of the performer.
The Windmill was famed for its Revueville and Johnson’s work here echoes that revue style. A series of connected scenes and songs make up the overall arc; particular stories are told within that arc. It’s simple and catchy – exactly as Revueville must have been.
Because it is set in the 1930s and 1940s, the sense and shadow of the war is inevitable. Johnson does not seek to avoid this, but embraces it, making the patriotism of the time an irresistible character. It is difficult not to shed a tear or two in several places, because the sense of the time is so carefully conveyed. It’s not mawkish or overdone; the sentiment comes from the period and the characters. It’s funny and engaging, as well as sad and thought-provoking.
Quite rightly, Johnson, as director, has insisted that there is actual nudity in the show. It could not be authentic without that. Equally, though, demonstrating the different attitudes of then society to nudity of men and women focuses attention of what has changed since 1940. Not much. The nude female form is still freely objectified while the nude male form is not. (A brief examination of Games of Thrones, for instance, reveals many many occasions where there is gratuitous female nudity but only the rarest of such shots involving men). Women are expected to pose naked; men are expected to keep clothes on. One is not often compelled by theatre to consider these issues – but this charming and brave musical so compels.
Andrew Wright provides excellent choreography, quite a lot of which is tricksy. It does not always seem quite right for the period, but the cast perform with endless energy and discipline and the routines are generally a lot of fun.He’s Got Another Think Coming is especially terrific and brings down the first Act curtain brilliantly.
As the practical, sensible Maureen, who embraces the challenge of the onstage nudity wholeheartedly, Emma Williams is an absolutely marvellous quadruple-threat: she acts, dances, sings, and poses nude with real, dazzling skill. Her voice is perfectly suited to the score here, and she imbues the numbers with heart and pure, golden tone. She plays the role perfectly, dances as though that is all she does, and can seductively twirl a fan better than most. Williams is spectacular in every way – but her brilliantly brave full frontal, front of stage admonition to Hitler is a true coup de théâtre: in its own way, as confronting, memorable and shocking as “Come On Dover! Move Your Blooming Arse!” must been when My Fair Lady debuted. Williams is wonderful.
Samuel Holmes is just as splendid as the male star of the Windmill, the camp and eccentric Bertie. He manages to both play a type and clearly etch out the sadness of a life lived when homosexuality was a criminal offence. Holmes doesn’t make the part foolish or melancholy; rather, Bertie’s energy and zest for life is clear. The moment when he strips off in solidarity with the girls is a true highlight – because it shows him to be a loyal and considerate friend to the girls, as well as a good sport and a bit of a joker (Some business with a nude and embarrassed Matthew Malthouse is very funny). Holmes has a true and quite beautiful voice which he uses expertly here and he is also an excellent dancer. Terrific in every way.
Ian Bartholomew is marvellous as Vivian Van Damm, the Jewish entrepreneur who works with Mrs Henderson to make The Windmill a success. He is funny and touching in turns, with his reaction to Hitler’s invasions in Europe particularly finely judged. This is a part which could easily be wasted, but Bartholomew brings high-powered charm, and a rich, booming vocal authority, to every scene. Van Damm sparkles.
Playing a character essentially new for this production, Matthew Malthouse, always a reliable performer, comes into his own as Eddie, the charming Theatre technician who loses his heart to Maureen. Malthouse does not make Eddie flashy or rakish; rather, he plays to Eddie’s weaknesses, and creates a gentle, delightful, and wholly adorable character. His scenes with Williams are sweet and true; it is impossible not to want them to live happily ever after. His voice is light and unerring, and he gives excellent renditions of the tunes in perfect period style. Another great dancer and one with a penchant for comic mischief and romantic gestures.
It’s always a hard act to follow Dame Judi Dench, and even harder when you are playing an older woman, but Tracie Bennett has no qualms and produces a whimsical but determined Mrs Henderson, who bursts with life and treats impossible obstacles as flies to be swatted. There is a Carry On Gang aspect to her performance which is perfectly judged – she can talk dirty to shock and cajole, but there is usually a twinkle in her eye. Sometimes the twinkle is caused by melancholy, sometimes by mischief, but her eyes are always alive to possibility. Completely in control of the requirements of the score, and with excellent on-stage empathy with Van Damn, Maureen, Eddie and, particularly, Bertie, Bennett gives a terrific central turn here.
There is first rate work from Graham Hoadly (the blustering Lord Chamberlain), Lizzy Connolly, Katie Bernstein and Lauren Hood (Doris, Peggy and Vera – wonderful Windmill dancers), Dickie Wood (Cyril) and Andrew Bryant (Sid). Indeed, the entire ensemble does excellent work – the harmonies and melodies are sung beautifully throughout, the dancing is first-rate, and the comedy and heart bursts from all.
There is only one off-key note. Mark Hadfield’s Arthur, the comic narrator who keeps the show flowing with his interlaced comic monologues, falls short of the mark. Hadfield’s delivery is not assured enough to work even if, as it seemed at the preview I saw, he was seeking to play a man who was unsure of his material. The schtick is not smooth enough, the banter not breezy enough, the supposed improvisation not clean enough. In the grand scheme of things, Arthur is not critical to the success of Mrs Henderson Presents, but if there was a first rate Arthur, the result would be all the more rich.
Tim Shortall’s set design is sweet and appropriate and the scene where the theatre is nearly bombed is impressively handled. Paul Wills provides excellent costumes, Ben Omerod’s lighting is beautifully managed (the handling of Eddie’s Moon and Maureen’s nudity is especially good) and Richard Mawbey does excellent work with wigs and make-up.
There is no doubt that Mrs Henderson Presents should transfer to the West End. The material is first-rate and superior to many new musicals that have played there in recent years. It will need a bigger orchestra (and, accordingly, bigger orchestrations) and it could do with some casting fine-tuning and a larger ensemble (another dozen dancers at least) so that a grander sense of scale was permitted. In Bath, it comes across as a superb chamber piece, perfectly suited to the gorgeous Theatre Royal. In the West End, its aim can be higher.
The important thing is that it works – in every department.
This is the best British Musical since Matilda. And if you discount musicals that turn on the involvement of children, it’s the best British Musical since The Phantom of the Opera.