In 2014, director Terry Johnson revived Joan Littlewood’s famous revue Oh What A Lovely War, about the First World War, at its original home at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. Now he moves to the Second World War for a similarly affectionate yet simultaneously gritty portrait of a resilient real-life theatre, the Windmill, the only one in the capital to stay open at the height of the Blitz, living up to its motto: “We never close!”
If the effect is to provide a kind of mirror to his earlier show, also echoing its music hall storytelling techniques and even sharing an actor in Ian Bartholomew, who appears in both, Mrs Henderson Presents is the more conventional, old-fashioned production, but none the worse for it.
Littlewood’s show is a bracing polemic on the sheer pointlessness of war. This musical, based on the 2005 film of the same name, is more soft-centred, even though it doesn’t shy from occasional hard edges. Instead, by concentrating on the backstage lives of the dancers and management of the Windmill, there’s more of a jaunty, frequently patriotic, flavour to it – that both sings and occasionally stings.
The score, with its music by Simon Chamberlain (who was musical director on the original film) and George Fenton and veteran lyricist Don Black, has an easy, accessible pastiche quality, in a similar vein to The Boy Friend, that channels composers who were active at the time, like Ivor Novello and Vivian Ellis. It comes into its own a couple of times as an original work, thanks to the soaring melodic quality that Emma Williams brings to songs like If Mountains Were Easy to Climb, or the touching sincerity of Ian Bartholomew in Living in a Dream World.
While shows like Calendar Girls and The Full Monty, both of which coincidentally also played at the Noel Coward, coyly didn’t quite show all – the girls in the former hid behind buns and other objects, the boys in the latter had their modesty protected by a blinding light at the key moment – there’s no such inhibition here, with the girls showing all.
But there’s nothing salacious about it. In fact there’s something sweetly innocent about it; I’m happy to report that this show is no bomb, but scores a direct hit of its own.