Mrs Henderson Presents:nostalgia with a dash of titillation
by DREW ROWSOME -Photos by Cylla Von Tiedemann
Who isn't nostalgic for a big old-fashioned musical? Lavish sets, rousing numbers extolling the theatre and patriotism, a wide range of emotional moments, subtle social commentary, and, just for extra enticement, some titillation. That is exactly what Mrs Henderson Presents is presenting.
The tale of the woman who, apparently single-handedly, changed the stringent British censorship laws regarding nudity, is the basis of Mrs Henderson Presents. And it is an intriguing story: a plucky widow buys a down-on-its-luck vaudeville theatre and, through the use of nude tableaux, helps to win the Second World War. But a historical lesson, even with boobs, could become boring, so the creators pile on other themes, a dash of post-modernism, and lots and lots of glitz.
The best addition is the feminist recasting of the women's dilemma about getting naked. There will be no guilt when it is time to ogle these women. And when they do get naked, they are beautiful. But just to keep things fair, there is a comic scene where ringleader Maureen (Evelyn Hoskins) insists the men in attendance must also strip. It is odd that the women are presented as objects of desire while the male nudity (and there are flashes and Malthouse, as befits the male protagonist, prances a good flopping eyeful) is all played for comedy. While injecting this feminist, and very welcome, twist, Mrs Henderson Presents also give feminism's little brother gay rights a vigorous nod.
When new owner Mrs Henderson meets dancer/choreographer Bertie (Adam Rhys-Charles) she hires him because he is so good-looking that no-one will care whether he can sing or dance. Fortunately Adam Rhys-Charles is very good at both and he strolls away with every scene he is in. Of course he is competing with nude tableaux which gives him the advantage of movement - and frequently sequins - but the disadvantage of competing with abundant flesh. He is also the first in the show to drop his drawers and it is a stunning sight though only from the back and, counter-intuitively to the themes, he immediately covers up with a towel.
Mrs Henderson asks Bertie to assess the looks of the gamines she has hired and he shrugs, saying he doesn't know as he is "otherwise inclined." To a big laugh, Mrs Henderson responds, "That's delicious." And Rhys-Charles is delicious but alas, Bertie is all song and dance with no romance and he appears to be the only homosexual in the theatre. For a backstage musical, that is unlikely but then musicals are usually fairy tales, almost always stripped of fairies.
There is so much nostalgia that the obvious parallels to today get buried in the murk, though the censorship dance, with its scandalous jazz hands (though that reference comes later in the show making the choreography psychic as well as befuddling), draws a direct parallel to our current political plight. And of course nostalgia works. The predictable plot pulls together for a climax that combines the worst of The Sound of Music (what is it with climbing mountains?) with an erotic fan dance (burlesque and tease still work) and a paean to the glories of treading the boards, to send everyone out happy. Who isn't satisfied by a good old-fashioned musical?