It’s amazing how a bit of nakedness never fails to entertain. Basic as the response may be, the incredulous giggles and guffaws from the audience as the male contingent of Mrs Henderson Presents clumsily sheds its attire in solidarity with the girls when it is suggested that they do so, are a clear sign that viewers are just as alarmed by full-frontal nudity as the lads appearing so traumatized on stage. And that’s kind of embarrassing in itself – why should we find it so comical, so disgraceful, so utterly scandalous? Well there’s hardly time to decide before the women show how it should be done, posing in artistically striking tableaux – entirely in the buff. When they do that, all comedy goes out the window and you find yourself simply marvelling at these fabulous, mighty women up there on the stage, who just so happen to be baring all.
If that’s the response of a so-called enlightened modern-day audience, then it’s no wonder that the Windmill Theatre caused such a ruckus when it moved from simple vaudeville to nude tableaux at the behest of owner Laura Henderson, in the 1930s – the venture depicted in 2005’s film starring Dame Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins. The caveat that the performers remained static satisfied the relevant governmental authorities that this was in fact live art, rather than anything more seedy.
Of course, a tale in which the women are persuaded to bare all in order to keep a theatre afloat raises unavoidable questions of exploitation. But that is something that this show clearly hopes to circumvent with its adorably British personality, and through the fact that the mastermind behind the whole idea is a respectable woman revelling in unrespectability come widowhood, who is all for female empowerment herself. Writer Terry Johnson recognizes the fine line between exploitation and empowerment but trusts in the audience to see further than the private parts on display.
Funny then, that he doesn’t trust audiences in the same way with the plot presented in the charming film from which this production was adapted. There, Mrs Henderson’s folly comes from the fact that she, scarred by the loss of her young son in the First World War and grieving the experiences he never had, encourages the firm-willed star of the show, Maureen, to lower her guard and allow herself to fall for a young soldier headed for The Front and succumb to a night of passion before he goes. When the said boy turns out to be a rogue with a sweetheart already in place, who leaves Maureen pregnant, Mrs Henderson seems dangerously delusional; we are forced to grapple with our frustrations to stick by the older woman, who has such an endearing and yet devastating tendency to get carried away.
No such emotional maturity is presumed at the Noël Coward Theatre, where Maureen (played by Emma Williams) is saved and turned into the heroine, having been persuaded by a hugely unsubtle Mrs Henderson (Tracie Bennett) to sleep with an old friend headed for The Front out of sympathy, despite the fact that she resolutely does not love, or see herself loving him, and all because Mrs H had an old-flame of the sort. It is a subtle difference in motivation for Maureen but an important one, as this latter version cheapens the affair considerably. Having been Mrs Henderson’s suggestion, this makes her seem more tawdry than blindly naïve (as per the film) and, although theatrical versions of movies ought not to be enslaved to their originals, changes such as these require careful judgement.
Nonetheless, this Theatre Royal Bath production positively brims with verve and has the wonderfully British feel of Gilbert & Sullivan about it. No more so than during the Lord Chamberlain’s main number, which is full of shrewdly awkward choreography. Indeed, all of the dance sequences impress with a brilliant amount of group content squeezed onto a modestly-sized stage.
In the titular role, Bennett has vocal oomph and clearly enjoys her character with a marvelously wry glint in her eye, though one must firmly put to bed any memories of Dench in the film as vulnerability is removed to make way for greater jest here. Given that Bennett is playing up in age, this teeters into pantomime territory and Mrs Henderson threatens to become a caricature of a barmy old woman but, just about, she is saved from such a fate.
As her sidekick, theatre manager Vivian Van Damm, Ian Bartholomew gives a superbly judicious performance. And it is not just his strong vocals that make his big number, “Living in a dream world” so moving, but his impassioned portrayal of a Jewish man living in safety whilst his family faces persecution elsewhere in Europe. The myriad tensions of war are very effectively alluded to throughout the whole thing.
But by a country mile, the stars of this show are the girls themselves (Maureen in particular, thanks to Williams’ pure vocals and enchanting disposition). It’s not just that they get their kit off, it’s that they manage to portray such strength and beauty in doing so that you feel as flabbergasted by the experience as audiences back in the day evidently did, and somewhat ashamed that you aren’t quite as brave. Furthermore, the artistic value of what they’re doing truly comes through as what tends to be rather a ramshackle aesthetic (predominantly depicting the backstage areas of a theatre) is swished away when it’s time to bare, and swapped for gleaming blues and simple lines, the girls glowingly lit whilst posing as figures like Boudicca or the lions from Trafalgar Square (golden neck ruffles included). As if to prove the success of the show, you really do ‘get’ it when you see it, however strange the concept might sound. And you have a jolly good time too.
Mrs Henderson Presents at the Noël Coward Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, London WC2N 4AU. Booking until 18th June 2016. For more information and tickets visit the website.