There's nothing, it seems, Britons love more than a good nudes story.
The Full Monty, Calendar Girls, Mrs Henderson Presents. … God bless them, they have a whole genre of feel-good flicks about ordinary folks who disrobe for a cause bigger than themselves. Widespread love for those cheeky movies has led to them all being adapted for the stage across the pond – and the latest to surface on Canadian shores as part of a Mirvish season is Mrs Henderson Presents, which musicalizes the 2005 Judi Dench movie of the same name about naked ladies standing up to the Nazis (sort of).
Alas, it's a pretty weak offering from the West End. It takes more than Blitz and ass to impress over here.
Mrs Henderson Presents is based on the true story of the rich widow and impresario Laura Henderson. She owned a revue theatre called The Windmill that presented nude women on stage in London from 1932 onwards – and is played in the musical with often intentionally hilarious gusto by stage veteran Tracie Bennett, perhaps the biggest exhibitionist in the cast, even though she never takes off her clothes.
How did Mrs. Henderson get permission from the Lord Chamberlain's office to pursue her profession, when it wouldn't even allow Mrs. Warren's Profession on a public stage until 1925?
Well, as seen here in song and dance, she and her general manager, Vivian Van Damm (Peter Polycarpou), evaded Britain's official stage censor by presenting its Windmill Girls in stationary "tableaux vivants" – and successfully arguing that if the nudes didn't move, they were no ruder than any number of paintings or statues you might find in the British Museum.
That's a fascinating chapter in the history of censorship, but the conflict is resolved in the first few scenes of this musical. The rest of the show is an overly patriotic pageant about how the Windmill went on to earn the motto "We Never Closed" – by never shutting down during the Second World War, even at the height of the German air offensive known as the Blitz that killed over 40,000 civilians.
Unfortunately, working from the original screenplay, playwright and director Terry Johnson hasn't really found an emotionally or otherwise engaging story to tell in this unusual wartime setting.
Mrs. Henderson and Mr. Van Damm simply go about their business running the theatre with few real hiccups. Maureen (a charming Evelyn Hoskins) is the only Windmill Girl we really to get to know in any depth. Initially a clumsy, introverted tea girl, she finds herself liberated by taking her clothes off in public. She tells men to strip as well – and, when a stagehand named Eddie (Matthew Malthouse) pursues her with a hackneyed song about the moon, she, refreshingly enough, rejects him.
There seems to be an attempt to turn what is a story about the literal objectification of women into a feminist parable – linking the Windmill Girls to the rise of women in the workplace, economy and positions of power during the war.
Unfortunately, the all-male creative team behind Mrs Henderson Presents seems flummoxed as to how to explore any of the complexities of the situation – and instead delivers only clichés: secondary showgirls indistinguishable from each other; women putting down others for being fat; innocents and sluts.
It seems a little insane to me that a story so woman-focused would make it to the stage in this day and age without someone involved at some point stopping to say, "Hey, maybe we should hire a female artist to help make some of this dialogue realistic or help move the characters around the stage in a non-male-gaze way?"
Instead, Johnson and company thrust a male narrator upon us to unnecessarily mansplain the action. A music-hall-style comedian named Arthur (Matt Slack) comes on stage between scenes, like a pointless rip-off of the emcee from Cabaret, to comment on the story, fill us in on the history and tell innuendo-filled jokes that I can't for sure say are awful, because Slack's accent and fast-talking makes half of what he's saying unintelligible.
It's only well into the second act that something resembling a plot breaks out – as Maureen finds herself dealing with a rather complicated situation when Mrs. Henderson pressures her to be friendlier to Eddie before he ships off.
It's here, however, where the decision to turn Mrs Henderson Presents into a musical really shows itself as a commercial rather than artistic one. The songs add nothing to the show – and, in many cases, harm it.
The music composed by George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain may be decent enough, but it's impossible to get past the awkward lyrics by Don Black (Sunset Boulevard).
Black's attempt to write a W.S. Gilbert-style patter song for the Lord Chamberlain reveals a serious lack of wit, but his attempts at earnestness are even worse. A group number during the Blitz has the whole cast singing, over and over: "When this war is over / we will all be saying / wasted lives are too high a price to pay." (Really?)
In the end, the only thing that really recommends this poorly plotted, plodding show is the opportunity to see some of the Windmill's strange and oddly beautiful tableaux vivants recreated on stage. Though one scene in which Maureen does move did make me question the historical accuracy of the whole enterprise, to be honest. Where on earth would a Briton have got a Brazilian during the Blitz?
Mrs Henderson Presents continues to April 23 (mirvish.com).