Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Review: Mrs Henderson Presents – Noël Coward Theatre

Having not seen the 2005 film, I had very few preconceptions of Mrs Henderson Presents, other than the fact that I knew it was based on true events. Set in 1937, it follows the story of Laura Henderson (Tracie Bennett) as she establishes the Windmill Theatre, with help from her appointed manager, Vivian Van Damm (Ian Bartholomew). What forms the premise of the plot, with the backdrop of World War II London, is the pair’s attempt to push the boundaries (and laws) of theatre, by introducing female nudity into their show – much to the protestations of The Lord Chamberlain (Robert Hands).

The show begins with the appointment of Vivian Van Damm, establishing a bickering rapport between himself and Mrs Henderson, whose contrasting opinions clash artistically, logistically and personally. There is a huge amount of potential within these opening scenes for witty quick-fire exchanges between the two, and although attempts are made, it’s something that the script doesn’t quite manage to pull off, in spite of Bennett and Bartholomew’s valiant and faultlessly-delivered efforts.

Although Mrs Henderson Presents is a strong story that is both comical and touching, the show’s integral downfall is in its underdeveloped script, with a somewhat ambivalent focus. The first half an hour or so suffers from an unnervingly slow unfurling of events and forced jokes, and it’s not until the scene in which the performers begin rehearsals for their upcoming nude performances that the script really picks up the pace and has the audience laughing effortlessly for the first time. Perhaps the key issue is that the show attempts to adhere to too many theatrical forms: it mimics a classic musical and has all the elements of a comedy in a self-mocking fashion, but also attempts subtle, wry humour and slapstick moments, all alongside its serious and heartfelt war-based tragedies.

George Fenton’s score is reminiscent of that classic musical era, and although it is rather safe its familiar melodic patterns, it thrives in the big company numbers, as well as the more melancholic moments. In accordance with the weaknesses in the script, lyrics are too often awkwardly placed, leading to unavoidably pre-empted lines and obviously anticipated blocking on stage. The opening number of the second act was the highlight of the musical score, and this fast-paced and animated pastiche demonstrated the full potential of this show. The plot, style and characters make up the perfect ingredients for a West End hit, but the flavour of the script just isn’t sharp enough.

What saves this production and secures it as an enjoyable watch, is the strength of the characters, both in composition and performance. Not only do the cast deliver brilliant portrayals of such an eclectic mix, but they skilfully draw out the intentions of the script, even when the dialogue doesn’t quite mark the spot. Bennett and Bartholomew’s comedy pair are hilariously charismatic, and often ridiculous in their ideas and quarrels, but the two are also inescapably loveable. It is perhaps Emma Williams as Maureen who ends up stealing the show. Though her girl-next-door act seems a little magnified to begin with, she settles into a more balanced figure and delivers an exceptional vocal performance towards the end.

Whilst the excellent cast and charming story make Mrs Henderson Presents an enjoyable watch, the flaws within the script and the slightly bland score are proof once again that a well-known film does not equate to a successful stage adaptation on the merit of name and existing plot alone.


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