Reviewed by James Karas
Laura Henderson gained fame and notoriety in the 1930’s by showing naked breasts in her theatre in London. She became the subject of the 2005 film Mrs Henderson Presents in which she was played by Judi Dench. The story proved too good to be ignored and a musical based on it appeared in 2015 and is now playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre.
Mr Henderson had the misfortune of dying in 1919 but had the decency to leave the feisty Mrs Henderson with a hefty pile of money. She used it to buy a theatre and hired a no-nonsense manager to run it. The Windmill Theatre in London’s West end was not a success and something had to be done about it. How about some naked breasts?
The cast of MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS ©2017, Cylla von Tiedemann
In conservative, censored England of the 1930’s that was unlikely to be allowed but, one could see paintings of naked women in the museum. Botticelli, Raphael, Rubens and many other artists celebrated nudity, so why not bare breasted women in the theatre? It was acceptable to do that provided the women stood still as if they were paintings.
There are a few good lines about nakedness in the musical. When you go below, far below the breasts you reach the pudendum which is a foreign word that few can understand. Well, call the area the Netherlands and make it more acceptable with the use of conservative hair dresses.
How Mrs Henderson and Van Damm got around the restriction on nudity in the theatre is the most famous aspect of the story, but it is by no means a central concern of the musical. This is a story about London in the late 1930’s and during the war, about backstage life in a theatre that produced continuous revues, about love, loss and a couple of interesting characters.
Tracie Bennett as Mrs Henderson and Peter Polycarpou as the manager Vivian Van Damm dominate the performance. Mrs Henderson is crotchety, tough, humane, difficult to get along with and in the end a bit of a theatrical legend. Bennett has a husky voice that she uses to good effect in an enjoyable performance.
Tracie Bennett and Evelyn Hoskins in MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS ©2017, Cylla von Tiedemann
Polycarpou as Van Damm is a good match for Mrs Henderson as a man of the theatre who has to deal with financial and artistic issues and we admire the relationship that he forges with his boss.
There is a touching love story involving Eddie (Matthew Malthouse) and Maureen (Evelyn Hoskins) who sing “What a Waste of a Moon” and bring home the effects of war. We have a seen in the London Underground where people hid during the bombing of the city as well as the determination to carry on. Mrs Henderson’s theatre was the only one that did not close during the war.
The set by Tim Shortall shows the backstage of Mrs Henderson’s theatre as well as the open roof garret and the underground to good effect.
The costumes by Paul Wills are colourful for the performers and appropriate for the other characters. The choreography by Andrew Wright has the fine feel of British music hall dancing perfectly matching what we would have wanted to see if we were there some eighty years ago, give or take. Full credit to director Terry Johnson.
The music by George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain ranges from recitative to almost ballad and the lyrics by Don Black are appropriate. The book by Terry Johnson tells the story well with good humour, dramatic scenes and touching romance that make for a very pleasant night at the theatre.
Mrs Henderson Presents by Terry Johnson (Book) Don Black (Lyrics), George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain (Music), continues until April 23, 2017 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King St. W. Toronto, Ont. www.mirvish.com