Best of British: MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS at the Noël Coward

New British musicals are always exciting to see grace the West End and Mrs Henderson Presents - a transfer to London from the Theatre Royal in Bath - is no exception to the algorithm. Like many other fantastic Brit musicals, it's a show that manages to take a deeply British tale of struggle and hope and make it both funny and heartwarming to watch. 

With a competent book by Terry Johnson and gleeful music from Don Black, George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain, Mrs Henderson Presents is pumping the same kind of air into the London theatre scene as Betty Blue Eyes did several years ago. The story of Mrs Henderson Presents is of the Windmill Theatre and the place's rise to success and significant fall when World War Two came around. Based on the 2005 movie of the same name, we're first introduced to Laura Henderson after she has bought the theatre following the untimely death of her late husband. She immediately hires Vivian Van Damm to oversee the theatre with a strong creative vision and with a company led by tea lady-turned-star Maureen, they begin to explore the ways that the theatre can make money before finally concluding that full-frontal nudity is the answer.

The story is more than a naked farce though: in the background of this hilarious coming-of-age sort of tale, World War Two is in full motion and men from the company are being conscripted, the most notable man being Eddie who is besotted with Maureen. It's a laugh out loud funny kind of story with moments that ooze heart and it's a blend that makes a perfect night out. The new music for the show is also wonderful to hear and see and while it isn't overly memorable apart from the odd two or three songs, it makes the show move nicely from a pace perspective; in my eyes, Billy Elliot is a similar kind of musical story. It's a musical that has such depth when it comes to the story that the music doesn't need to be memorable to make a good night - it fits the story and at the end of the day, that is all that really matters.


*Spoilers in this paragraph* Despite its feel good fun, the message did end up lost by the end of the show in my eyes. I left the theatre wondering what I was meant to be taking home from the story when all I'd seen was the rise, almost fall and then return to normality of a theatre. The only character with actual depth was Maureen who seemed to be finding independence by the end of Act One, but she was sleeping with a man who she didn't love for the sake of his own morale and mothering his child by the end of the show. Was I meant to be taking home the idea that women should do things they don't want to for the sake of thanking a man going to war; maybe it was the idea that compromise is always imminent? I had no clue where this awkwardly dated conclusion was sitting and if I'm totally honest with you, it's the main factor that let the show down.

The cast on the other hand are faultless no matter what way you look at them. The always fantastic Tracie Bennett makes an empowering and aristocratic Mrs Laura Henderson; with her lived-in vocal quality that garnered her such critical acclaim for her portrayl of Judy Garland several years ago, you can't deny this woman's age-old star power. Ian Bartholomew also gives a timeless performance as Vivian Van Damm with what I would consider to be some of the nicest vocals from an older man in the West End. It feels like he's been very off the radar since his days as The Baker in Into The Woods, so it's nice to see his performance in this show be rewarded with an Olivier nod this year. Emma Williams is the true star of the show though; a gorgeous vocal throughout and a stunningly deep and layered performance kept me captivated and she was the one person who I got excited about whenever she came onto the stage. Her performance of the soaring 11 o'clock number "If Mountains Were Easy to Climb" is so beautiful that it's worth the ticket price alone.

All in all, Mrs Henderson Presents is a very enjoyable little piece of British musical theatre. It's not revolutionary and won't be changing the face of the genre, but it might just be kicking the whole idea of "new musical" in the direction of lavish and sophisticated shows that we haven't seen in many, many moons. Classic musical theatre is back in style and Mrs Henderson Presents is the freshest of these kinds of shows to add to the collection; it's the latest #SMMPick.

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