At the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto, Ont.
Book by Terry Johnson
Based on the motion picture: Mrs. Henderson Presents
Original screenplay by Martin Sherman
Lyrics by Don Black
Music by George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain
Directed by Terry Johnson
Musical director, Francis Goodhand
Set by Tim Shortall
Sound by Gareth Owen
Lighting by Ben Ormerod
Costumes by Paul Wills.
Choreography by Andrew Wright
Cast: Tracie Bennett
A charming show full of lilting songs that evoke the era of the war years in London and in particular the years of the mildly notorious Windmill Theatre.
The Story. It’s 1937, London, England. Laura Henderson has inherited oodles of money from her late husband. On a whim she buys the Windmill cinema in Great Windmill Street, in the middle of the bustling West End and turns it into a bone fide theatre. The bill of fare is non-stop variety acts; cheesy stand-up comedians, dance numbers, magic acts and lovely ladies performing.
Mrs Henderson has no theatre expertise so she hires impresario Vivian Van Damm to run the theatre. She is not so much a novice because she insists that her name be listed as the person doing the presenting. (When times were lean for him, Mr. Van Damm had been known to sell socks on the street. He’s my kind of fellah, combining my two favourite things: theatre and socks.) Business is tough and they need a gimmick to draw in the customers. Mrs Henderson comes up with an idea, naked women on stage. The government office that oversees such things says that naked women cannot be seen cavorting on the stage. So Mrs Henderson says that they will be as still as in an artful tableau. People flock to the theatre to see such a thing. It’s war time. The Windmill Theatre prides itself on never closing, but there are challenges.
The Production. Terry Johnson directs his script for Mrs Henderson Presents. Arthur, a comedian with an overblown style (a buoyant Matt Slack) puts us in the world of the music-hall entertainment that is typical of the Windmill Theatre of that time. Arthur plays the audience and bombards us with cheesy one-liners. He is disarming. This sets us up for meeting Mrs Henderson and Mr. Van Damm.
The backstage world is full of stagehands carrying planks of two by fours on their shoulders as they cross the stage, turn, swinging the two by fours just missing other stagehands. This is a classic routine. In the US these skits would be typical of Vaudeville. In England it’s typical of music hall. This kind of entertainment was typical in England during hard times, such as war time. People flocked to the Windmill Theatre for comic relief and artful appreciation of the naked lady tableaux.
Terry Johnson has directed this so that the music hall humour and singing/dancing numbers evoke the 1930s in London. The songs by Don Black (lyrics) and George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain (music) are lilting and melodic. The songs are cheerful and engaging.
As Mrs Henderson, Tracie Bennett is a diminutive dynamo. She’s usually looking up to speak to anyone because they tower over her. She doesn’t cower. She commands. Her voice is husky and her manner is matter of fact and confident. Bennett illuminates Mrs Henderson as a charming, no-nonsense woman used to getting her way but giving the impression she is open to compromise. As Vivian Van Damm, Peter Polycarpou is distinguished and he too has the confidence of a man who knows what he’s doing. But when dealing with Mrs Henderson, he’s met his match. He’s frustrated often but always charmed by her and respectful of her guts and pluck. As Maureen, the leading naked lady of the troupe, Evelyn Hoskins has an innocent, almost uptight sweetness that soon gives way to resolve when she has to reveal all. She also proves an adept opponent of Hitler—no mean feat.
Comment. One has to appreciate >Mrs Henderson Presents (the absence of a period after “Mrs” is deliberate) as it harkens back to the music hall days of the 1930s and 40s. This doesn’t make it dated. It makes it suggestive of that time without making a comment about the future. It shows the British grit and resolve in hard times, and how they try to normalize life during times of strife and danger, such as London during the Blitz. The story of the Windmill Theatre and its success at the time in a way is representative of that British grit.
David Mirvish Presents:
From: March 15, 2017.
To: April 23, 2017
Saw it: March 24, 2017.
Cast: 23; 11, men, 12 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.