It's interesting that theatre turns so often to the "little British film" for new musicals: the female footballers of BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM, the Geordie ballet dancer BILLY ELLIOTT, the factory workers making high heels for drag queens in KINKY BOOTS, the WI ladies in CALENDAR GIRLS, the unemployed strippers in THE FULL MONTY, the colliery band in BRASSED OFF, the striking factory girls of MADE IN DAGENHAM - there is even talk that the gay activists of PRIDE might be musicalised.
These films all follow the same template of an individual or friends chasing a dream or fighting injustice which nearly stumbles at the final hurdle only to triumph in the end. They are all reasonably successful films which have a built-in audience awareness and a collection of 'lovable' characters the audience can bond with. It doesn't always work - hello MADE IN DAGENHAM and FULL MONTY! And now we have another show based on a similar "Little British film" about an individual chasing a dream...
Bob Hoskins co-produced and co-starred in the 2005 film with Judi Dench as the indefatigable Mrs Henderson who owned the Windmill Theatre in the 1930s and who hit upon the idea of mixing low comedy and high nudity - the showgirls were frozen in non-moving tableaux and the theatre famously never closed during the air raids of World War II. And now Terry Johnson has adapted and directed it for the stage.
Constant Reader I left the theatre with one thought on my mind - why?? I had sat through the show with a real bafflement as at no point during it did I ever feel the need for this show to be musicalised at all. Yes it has pastiche numbers for the 'onstage' scenes but the score is weakly malnourished and feels horribly old-fashioned mostly due to the shocking unoriginality of Don Black's lyrics - whatever originality he might have once had has long since dribbled out of his nib.
In his programme notes Terry Johnson says that MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS gave him ample scope to explore favourite themes including the male gaze and female empowerment. Well I am sure those themes were mentioned on the first day of rehearsals but there is nothing in the finished article that strikes you as original or even that interesting. His script simply plays out the film's plot - no insight, no real exploration of the wartime experience... it all just slides by like a film watched with the sound turned off.
The production felt bland and coy - for a show that's about nakedness it's awfully tame and toothless. In fact the whole production: book, music and performances felt like it could easily have been teleported from the late 50s or early 60s. It's remarkable that a new production can feel like a museum piece in 2015 (it opened at the Theatre Royal Bath last year).
Tracie Bennett gives a grating performance as the garrulous Mrs Henderson, over-pitched, shallow and lacking in any charm at all. Ian Bartholomew has been an asset to many a musical but here as Vivian Van Damme, the manager of the Windmill, he sings and dances up a storm but without a single bead of charisma so it feels like his hang-dog facial expression and baggy suit are all there is to him.
Emma Williams is personable as Maureen the tea-girl-cum-main showgirl but her relentless perkiness soon feels like you are being battered to death with a rolled-up copy of Bunty and the rest of the cast play various stereotypes without troubling one's interest too much. Terry Johnson's inoffensive piffle has even changed the film's plot so the character of Maureen is not killed in an air raid, her ex-stage hand boyfriend goes off to war instead and is conveniently killed so Williams can sing an interminable eleven o'clock number with Mrs Henderson about how "If Mountains Were Easy To Climb"... yes, you guessed, the next line ends with 'time'.
To paraphrase John Betjeman "Come friendly bombs and fall on the Noel Coward Theatre"