If charm alone were enough to bring in a paying audience, then Mrs Henderson Presents – the screen to stage adaptation which is now playing at The Noel Coward Theatre having transferred from The Theatre Royal Bath – would be packing them in for the next thirty years.
Telling the story of Laura Henderson – the society widow who buys an uninspiring cinema on Great Windmill Street opening it in 1931 as The Windmill Theatre – the show, with book by Terry Johnson who also directs, is a back-stage saga of theatre people.
Having failed to make a profitable go of things as a ‘legitimate’ playhouse, Mrs Henderson (Tracie Bennett who essentially carries the show) hires director and impresario Vivian Van Damm (Ian Bartholomew) to present ‘Revuedeville’, a mash-up of musical revue and American Vaudeville. When even that fails to fill the coffers she comes up with the idea of presenting a series of ‘tableau vivant’ – nude girls in classic poses who, as long as they don’t move, will actually be circumventing the strict Lord Chamberlain’s laws concerning nudity on stage.
As is always the way with stories starting in the 1930’s, Herr Hitler makes an unfortunate and unwanted entry onto the scene, and the show then becomes about life in the theatre which stayed open – the only one in the west End so to do – as much to bring much needed cheer to young servicemen on leave as to line the pockets of impresario and owner.
However, charm alone isn’t enough to make a show a classic, and all the depilated full frontal nudity from the girls on stage doesn’t make up for the fact that the show, though immensely enjoyable, has some quite serious flaws, the most serious of which is the writing in the first fifteen or twenty minutes.
The opening of any show has a lot to do. You have to set the tone of the show, establish the milieu, and most importantly establish to the audience just exactly why they should go with you on the journey you’re about to tell for the next two hours plus.
Well, I’m afraid Mrs Henderson Presents cocks this bit up.
It might have something to do with the lyrics of the first couple of songs which are, how can I put it? …in places not up to Don Black’s usual high standard. In fact I sat there wondering if some of them were from a different hand entirely.
It may be that the ‘I Want’ song (Whatever Time I Have) appears too late in the show. It’s the third song in, and is preceded by two full-on company numbers which, though entertaining and full of charm, race by at such breakneck speed that they leave the audience behind.
It may be something to do with the nebulous want of Mrs Henderson needing to do an undefined ‘something’ in the time she has left. Either way it’s a charming song but comes too late to carry the audience who, from then on tend to see things – myself included – with a more critical eye, which is a shame, as after its’ troubled birth the show actually starts to take flight.
The highs are high, though the lows could afford to be much grittier. There are a few standout songs – The Lord Chamberlain’s Song is pure Gilbert and Sullivan, and the eleven o’clock number, If Mountains Were Easy to Climb gives full scope to Emma Williams can belto – though the lack of narrative in the second act does rather tend to slow things down.
All in all a near miss, and a show which I wanted so much to be a belter. It isn’t.