Biographical shows about backstage life are all the rage — last year we had Mr Foote's Other Leg (set backstage at an 18th century Theatre Royal Haymarket), and also now playing in London is Nell Gwynn, revolving around the 17th century actress who became mistress to Charles II. Now we move forward to the last century for this delicious musical portrait of Mrs Henderson, a redoubtable widow who bought and transformed Soho's Windmill Theatre in the 1930s into a celebrated place for female stage nudity to be tastefully celebrated as part of variety bills that would achieve fame during the Second World War for being the only London theatre to remain open.
The Windmill, like the Haymarket, is still there — and both are still doing much the same sort of thing; the Haymarket continues to be a destination for celebrity-led theatre, while the Windmill is now a lap-dancing club. Mrs Henderson, who was ever the pragmatist, might be impressed.
The show that bears her name may have lots of naked female flesh on display — and some male flesh, too, though the latter is only seen from behind or front on with strategically placed cover, so perhaps director Terry Johnson isn't quite providing equal opportunities pleasure. But his show, first seen at Bath Theatre Royal last summer, is an otherwise unbridled pleasure that tells a very British story of indomitably and survival, even as the Germans launch their air raids on London and it became the only theatre to still her operating in the West End during the Second World War.
It's a delightfully told story, based on the 2005 film of the same name, with a book by Johnson, that brings real warmth to its portrait of a close-knit group of characters facing down a common challenge as only theatre people know how to: the show must go on.
And the clothes must come off, and they do (as long as the girls don't move, to cheekily get around the Lord Chamberlain's rules against stage nudity). A striking quartet of beautiful young women, led by Emma Williams as the tea-girl turned living statue, are beautiful — but the phwaor phwaor factor is mitigated by establishing their human vulnerabilities first.
In fact it is a show full of vulnerability and warmth and charm. A pastiche period score, with music by George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain and lyrics by Don Black, may lack memorable songs, but it sounds sweetly of its time. And the cast, led by Williams who is as gorgeously voiced as she is physically, and the considerably more brassy Tracie Bennett as Mrs Henderson and Ian Bartholomew as the manager she appoints to run the theatre, give it their all.
The result is one of the most delightful and winningly old-fashioned musicals London has seen for a while. It is already booked to go to Toronto next year; I can see a long life.
"This is a show that not only improves on the original movie, but also gives the comatose British musical a healthy injection of energy."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Has plenty of heart, but its art is somewhat lacking."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"As for the songs, there are a lot of them from Don Black (lyrics) and George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain (music), but none are memorable. The last thing the West End needs is an endless stream of American musicals, but this home-grown fare simply isn’t good enough."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard