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Mrs Henderson Presents

Mark Hadfield in Mrs Henderson Presents. Photo: Nobby Clark Mark Hadfield in Mrs Henderson Presents. Photo: Nobby Clark
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The West End’s best musical revival is currently Gypsy, which is set in the fading world of the vaudeville circuit and follows Louise, the timid daughter of Madame Rose, as she becomes Gypsy Rose Lee and moves into the arse end of show business (in every sense) to take up burlesque and leave her mother in the fairy-dust and glitter behind her.

Now, one of Gypsy’s West End co-producers Michael Harrison is also spearheading a new stage musical version of the 2005 film Mrs Henderson Presents, which provides a uniquely British perspective on the same phenomenon, as a feisty widow (the equivalent of Madame Rose) takes on a fading real-life variety theatre near Piccadilly Circus in 1930s London, and turns it into a home for nude tableaux – at least 30 years ahead of when Kenneth Tynan broke the theatrical taboo on stage nudity with Oh, Calcutta!

The Windmill prided itself on never closing – not even during the Blitz, when it was the only West End theatre left operating – and this show follows that story and the ragbag of performers who populated it with sincerity, spirit and real heart. (The venue itself, incidentally, now continues to ply the noughties version of the same thing with lap and table dancers, so some things never change.)

But while stage versions of other British films like Calendar Girls and The Full Monty have only gone for the most discreet form of stage nudity available, with the cast appearing nude but hidden either by well-positioned props or blinding lights, this stage version is full frontal in every way. That’s just one signpost of the integrity with which director Terry Johnson, who has also provided the fluent book, has approached it. It’s a no-holds-barred (perhaps that should be all-holes-bared) vision and it underpins the piece with the right degree of honesty.

There’s a palpable affection instead of affectation towards the material and these characters, exemplified in the gorgeously generous performance of Tracie Bennett as Laura Henderson (the Judi Dench role from the film), whose gruff vocals are contrasted with the poignantly sweet-voiced Emma Williams as Maureen, the theatre’s tea maker-turned-ecdysiast (to apply the term favoured by Gypsy Rose Lee, but never used here). When she falls pregnant by stage hand Eddie (Matthew Malthouse), another layer is added to the story as he heads off to fly in the war. Meanwhile, the Jewish theatre producer Vivian van Damm (Ian Bartholomew) introduces further context as he worries about the advance of the Nazis across Europe.

It’s a show, in other words, rooted in an underpinning of reality, but the joy of this adaptation is also in its true evocation of a music hall influenced strip club, complete with a broad, bawdy comedian (affectionately played by Mark Hadfield).

The alternately charming and lilting score by George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain stretches from presentational numbers that are performed in the show within the show (superbly choreographed by Andrew Wright with a real sense of period) to evocative character-driven songs.

I predict a fast West End transfer for it — and a certain life on the touring road thereafter.

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A terrific, authentically British-flavoured new musical gets off to a brilliant regional start, for which a future life is guaranteed
Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as New York critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005. His columns appear online every Wednesday and Friday.