You wait for a popular but distinctly underwhelming noughties British film starring a Dame of the British Empire featuring women posing naked to raise a bit of cash to be turned into a stage musical and then you get a big bouncy pair of them. What are the chances?
Girls, which has for some inexplicable reason has dropped the identifying word Calendar from its title is creeping closer to London. For the meantime we will have to
put up with content ourselves with Mrs Henderson Presents based on the 2005 Judi Dench film.
Mrs H along with one Vivian Van Damm (Ian Bartholomew), transformed Soho’s Windmill into a theatre of non-stop revue in the thirties bolstering flagging audiences with tableaux of the naked female form and famously kept the venue open through the war years with the motto “We never close”. Since Mrs H is hedging its bets by billing itself as on for a “strictly limited season” there’s a certain irony there.
Tracie Bennett‘s relentless Mrs H is aged-up to resemble a cross between Mrs Merton and Maureen Lipman in the days when she still needed to be aged-up. Her performance displays no signs of flagging until her character appears to be falling ill late into Act 2 before a sudden Downton Abbey-style miracle recovery and is up and hoofing with the chorus before the finale. Peculiar.
The score by George Fenton sometimes rather neatly pastiches music of the period, including an Andrews Sisters-style song, and although Don Black‘s lyrics display the occasional spark they were largely inaudible in the ensemble numbers and often started promisingly but never building into what we would call a proper song. There’s a very strange bit of choreography in the Lord Chamberlain’s office with characters wiggling their fingers over heads which left us scratching ours in bemusement.
Jamie Foreman comes on as a cheeky-chappie, Max Miller influenced, music hall turn cum narrator between scenes but is saddled with such dire material he managed to elicit only sporadic laughs from some of the audience and none at all from us. There’s also an overly camp chorus boy (the part that rocketed Will Young to movie oblivion in the original) which elicited a few chuckles from those who like to laugh at overly camp chorus boys. All a bit awkward really.
On a more positive note we were impressed by Emma Williams as a tea girl who transforms bravely into one of the Windmill girls; she almost made us believe her big number “If Mountains Were Easy to Climb” is a decent song leading Andrew to comment after the show “If mountains were easy to climb, he’d climb ev’ry mountain”.
The slightly dodgier aspects of the enterprise – getting the women to undress – are countered by a scene where the women get the men to strip before they’ll disrobe. We even glimpsed a male member. Dickie Henderson Presents?
But it’s not the nudity that exposed the cast it’s the weak material (book by Terry Johnson who also directs) they are forced to make something of. We were at the first preview so things may pick up but bear in mind the show (with the original cast largely intact) had enthusiastic reviews from its run in Bath last year and we really expected to like this.
With its music hall sensibility (and some unashamedly patriotic flag waving), spoon-playing, tap dancing, juggling and conjuring it really should have been up our old-fashioned alley. Who knows? If they’d added a bit of plate-spinning we might have been more generous.
For us, this Mrs Henderson proved to be more of a miss.