Let’s not be prudish – for the West End it’s essential to put bums on seats. Taking a lesson from its real-life subject – a nude variety show presented by the eponymous producer during WWII – there’s plenty of flesh on display here and scope for good old-fashioned smutty humour. At least in 2016, Mrs Henderson’s girls are given a voice, although the exploitation of their naked bodies is glossed over as an opportunity for them to be extraordinary. And the show’s boast of bravely running throughout the Blitz provides predictable flag-waving sentimentality. Neither crowd-pleasing tactic is particularly edifying.
This is not, of course, the fault of the cast. And while Terry Johnson’s book is surprisingly leaden, his direction is good, as are a strong set from Tim Shortall and costumes by Paul Wills. Tracie Bennett and Ian Bartholomew are excellent leads as Mrs Henderson and her right-hand man, Vivian Van Damm. Entering the theatre business is a whim for her and he is Jewish – this seems to be all we need to know about them. There’s a sweet love story for Emma Williams, who leads a strong ensemble, but a general lack of emotional attachment to an assortment of quickly sketched characters. The biggest disappointment comes with a dreadful role for Jamie Foreman, a pointless narrator and comedian with dire jokes – a warm-up man who leaves you cold.
Indeed, Mrs Henderson Presents is a pretty frigid and calculated affair. Much could be forgiven if the songs were good but George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain’s tunes are mostly forgettable. The first half is particularly foggy and while things do pick up there’s really only one adventurous number – foolishly the only chance for Williams to show off a great voice. The real shock comes from Don Black’s lyrics, at times so banal that you start guessing which rhyme will come up next. Unforgivably, one song has lad, mad and bad in one verse. The performances on offer might mean the show should be a hit but the lyrics are merde.
Until 18 June 2016
Photo by Paul Coltas