It is almost six months since I saw Mrs Henderson Presents in its premiere run in Bath. I thought then that it was the best British musical in some time.
Now playing at the Noél Coward Theatre is a slightly recast, slightly rejigged version of the musical Bath enjoyed. The tinkering with the material is all for the better; the changes in cast are both good and bad. But, overall, this is a tighter, more tautly and finely tuned version. Those that were excellent before have brightened and bloomed, finding greater depth, range and exhilaration in their characters. The transfer brings with it an intimacy (the Noél Coward is innately more intimate than the Theatre Royal, Bath) and a sense of accomplishment which pervades everything. On the West End, Mrs Henderson Presents is a total, captivating triumph.
At least it is as long as you approach it with an open mind and a willing spirit.
Musicals seem to engender great swings in public opinion. Generally, if people like a particular type of musical, then they like all musicals of that type. Sometimes it is about a composer, sometimes about tone, sometimes about the dancing. Sondheim supporters are unlikely to find much to get excited about in Mrs Henderson Presents; neither are those who adore the works of Bernstein, Robert-Brown or Tesori. And yet I doubt that any of those composers would be disparaging about what Terry Johnson, Don Black, George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain have achieved here. This is a clever, interesting and quite important story told with unerring verve and crafty simplicity; the music propels the narrative, establishes the mood and period and energises everything.
These might not be tunes which would excite an X Factor audience or people who think the thrill in musical theatre comes from chandeliers, helicopters or rap, but they are tunes which, if recorded by popular artists, might become commercial successes. They abound with wit and style. Cole Porter or Richard Rodgers would not be embarrassed to call them theirs. They tell a story lyrically and harmonically and melodically. They set scenes, convey emotion, propel narrative and are insightful and funny. What more is required?
The plot might revolve around female nudity, but it is not exploitative. Indeed, there are few musicals which concern such formidable, wonderful and extraordinary women as the two women who are central to the plot here: Laura Henderson and Maureen. Looked at in the right way, Mrs Henderson Presents is a spirited defence of the glory and wonder of women. Mrs Henderson keeps a theatre alive and popular during the darkest chapter in the history of London – German bombers terrorising the natural order, threatening an entire way of life, killing, maiming and snuffing out the light. All the while Mrs Henderson, keeps the home theatre fires burning, proving that art is as important, perhaps more important, than anything else when morale and spirits need lifting.
For her part, Maureen represents the emerging independent woman. She won’t be easily seduced, isn’t gag-ga about the first boy who asks her out, is a hard working free spirit and, in the end, shows more spunk and self-awareness than any man she ever encounters. She makes the most of opportunities which come her way, and faces and conquers her fears. She is a formidable – but utterly real – wonderful woman.
The trick here is that this is a musical which carefully and correctly tells an important historical story by adopting the forms, mores and approaches which epitomise and encapsulate that historical time. World War Two saw the beginning of the end for Vaudeville and Revues in England; they may have persisted, even endured, after the War but new forms were asserting dominance in that period. Mrs Henderson Presents is unashamedly old-fashioned, both in content and form, but that is cleverness and point of uniqueness. Just as Sondheim used the past to make Follieswork, so is the past used here. Indeed, this story could not satisfactorily be told any other way. It might not obviously appeal to the Rent, Parade or Hamilton aficionados, but it should. It tells its story just as effectively – and its story is just as important.
Indeed, the simple fact is that Mrs Henderson Presents is an exemplar in the genre. It uses music to tell an extraordinary and wonderful story – and, really, that is what musicals are about. Those who embrace the form of musical theatre will be untroubled by, and probably exhilarated by, Mrs Henderson Presents. Those who just don’t get musical theatre as a form will pontificate about its imagined inadequacies. A musical doesn’t need to be gritty or modern or “real” to be supremely effective; it doesn’t need to especially dramatic or universal – it just needs to resonate in song, authentically and appropriately, given the narrative. Mrs Henderson Presents achieves that better than most; certainly better than Bend It Like Beckham, Kinky Boots or even Miss Saigon.
The performances here are, across the board, except in one instance, quite wonderful.
Emma Williams has polished her remarkable performance till it shines with the lustre of genius and perfection. No one could improve on what Williams achieves here. She is utterly magnificent; vocally astonishing and pure, warm and inspiring. She handles the comedy and the assertive intelligence splendidly in equal measure. Her fearlessness in the nude scenes is absolutely triumphant. Engrave the Olivier Award for her now.
Samuel Holmes matches her perfection. His Bertie is a wonderful character – all surface jollity and glib stage expertise, dancer extraordinaire and true friend. But he also skewers the true loneliness of Bertie – beautiful but alone. His complete charm on stage, his breathlessly joyful routines and repartee, all combine to make a memorable, lustrous character. Holmes wastes no moments, fills in every second he is on stage with total commitment and agile, knowing sincerity. We laugh and smile with him, but also see, clearly, his tragic side. It’s a consummate, disciplined turn.
Matthew Malthouse has grown significantly in the role of Eddie. He is now more confident, more at ease in the role.What A Waste Of A Moon is a triumph. His dancing is hypnotic too and he and Holmes establish a terrific relationship, odd though it is. He and Williams are perfection together.
Both Tracie Bennett and Ian Bartholomew are excellent, and both feel more assured and relaxed in their critical and central roles. Bennett exudes class, effortlessly moving from saucy Carry On risqué camp to heart-clenching and weary world wise sadness. It is not every actor who could be so committed to a background role while another performer sang a power ballad like If Mountains Were Easy To Climb, but it is a testament to Bennett’s commitment and skill that she allows Williams her supreme moment, while at the same time giving a performance of aching honesty and intense pain which does not detract from or undermine Williams’ moment but underlines and enhances it. Extraordinary.
Bennett and Bartholomew work splendidly together, whether they are flirting, fighting or fussing. They establish a complicated and prickly relationship of highs and lows. Their duet, Anything But Young, is a total showstopper. Bartholomew also scores great comedy points – especially, in the scene where the ladies force the men to strip before they do, but also generally throughout. He handles the awkward scene about being Jewish when Holland is invaded with considerable skill – it could be awkwardly offensive, but Bartholomew sells it superbly. His scene in the Art Gallery is particularly wry.
As Arthur, the carpet salesman turned comedy link artiste, Jamie Foreman is all that could be wished for. He sings nicely, grasps the material in both hands and impressively spars with the audience. I remain unconvinced that the device that is Arthur is actually necessary for Mrs Henderson Presents to work, but I doubt that it could be better done than Foreman manages here. He is genuinely amusing, occasionally really funny; but throughout he is a tangible link to the Vaudevillian style Arthur represents. He is a vast improvement on the Bath version. In that, he is the precise opposite of Robert Hands’ self-conscious and artificial Lord Chamberlain Cromer. Hands seems to be in a different production and his performance is about caricature rather than character. In Bath, the Lord Chamberlain’s Song was a G&S joy; in the West End, it is an over-egged pudding – flat and wan.
There is quite superb work too from Katie Bernstein (Peggy), Lizzy Connolly (Doris) and Lauren Hood (Vera) – all are excellent in form, character and voice. A triumphant trio.
There is nothing not to like here and much to love and adore. The production is generous and joyful, the music bounces and charms, and the cast are terrific and charming. Andrew Wright’s choreography sparkles and enchants – although with this Lord Chamberlain, the movement in that song seems bizarre rather than natural (as the Bath routine seemed). Wright knows when stillness works best – and you can see this both in the Malthouse/Williams duets, some of which break out into glorious Astaire/Rogers glory, and in the vocally triumphant duet between Williams and Bennett. Less proven to be more yet again.
The musical direction from Barney Ashworth and Mike Dixon is superb – the orchestra misses no beats and soars in splendour.
Mrs Henderson Presents is THE musical currently playing in the West End. As home grown musicals of substance go, it is hard to beat.