Mrs Henderson Presents Review: Nudity Sells. Who Knew?

Mrs Henderson Presents, Noel Coward Theatre ★★★☆☆

Franco Milazzo
By Franco Milazzo Last edited 23 months ago
Mrs Henderson Presents Review: Nudity Sells. Who Knew? Mrs Henderson Presents, Noel Coward Theatre 3

Can nudity be arty? This hot topic rears its coiffed head again with the arrival of Mrs Henderson Presents which opens this week at the Noel Coward theatre.

On the one hand there’s Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, who last month apparently had an issue with ancient nude statues, and Evening Standard’s theatre critic Fiona Mountford who took one look at this production and remarked on “how dispiriting it is to see a West End stage in 2016 filled with topless women”. Third-wave feminists would go further than Mountford and tout concepts like the “male gaze”, the idea that posits that the naked female form is there in art to be objectified and sexualised by men.

On the other, burlesque is doing rather well. Critically-acclaimed shows at the London Wonderground, Hippodrome and Café de Paris are still doing a roaring trade. Europe’s longest burlesque festival is coming back here in May and, while gentrification may have claimed some significant Soho joints, new spaces are opening up all over the capital. If female nudity is “dispiriting” or objectifying, someone forgot to tell the punters.

So what will Mrs Henderson Presents’s punters see? In essence, they’ll be treated to a version of the story played out in the Judi Dench/Bob Hoskins 2005 film: the widow Henderson buys the Windmill Theatre, hits on the idea of “nude tableaux” as a selling point and keeps the place open during world war two. This is a thoroughly modern West End musical so expect the usual ingredients of enthusiastically shallow characterisation, ecstatically clichéd love scenes and some deliciously hammy dance routines.

That said, this is a solid musical which builds on virtuoso performances from the central trio of Tracie Bennett, Emma Williams and Ian Bartholomew, some snappy direction in the first half and a couple of memorable songs along the way. Once the initial build up is out of the way, the action stutters its way into World War Two and dips into a pit of mawkish melodrama before emerging with a footstomping finale.

The script has more than a few crackers in it. When one Windmill girl says “I saw Father McGuire at the box office! What will I say to him in confession?”, another responds “I would let him do the talking". There’s also a fine turn from sassy psychopomp Jamie Foreman whose vaudeville antics spice up the night. The nudity is sparse with one instance of full-frontal but, overall, there is nothing here that you couldn’t bring the grandparents to.

Female nudity may be Mrs Henderson Present’s USP but it is essentially there as a plot device, like the male nudity in The Full Monty, football in Bend It Like Beckham and drag in Kinky Boots. It seems London’s Theatreland has swapped the jukebox musicals of yore for a series of MacGuffin musicals; while at least the former could boast formidable songbooks, the latter — epitomised by this latest example — are often, at best, average fare when stripped of their central contrivance.

What's the Windmill Theatre up to these days?

While the original Windmill girls were brought on stage on press night to huge acclaim, very little mention has been made in the marketing or press of what has become of Mrs Henderson’s theatre or about its current owner. Now going under the name of Windmill International, its lease was sold in 1994 by renowned pornographer Paul Raymond to octogenarian ex-con Oscar Owide. Known by some as “Mr Soho” and by others as “Britain’s biggest pimp”, Owide’s businesses were documented by the Evening Standard in 2004.

He’s served time for — among other things — VAT fraud, has been barred from running a business and four years ago was the subject of an unfavourable behind-the-scenes portrait by The Guardian. These days, he runs the Windmill as a strip club and lapdancing bar with the aid of his son Daniel. The place still has something of the theatre about it with its magnificent stage and occasional floorshows. It retains an old world charm not found in its more showy competitors Platinum Lace and Spearmint Rhino. Hotel concierges are given tours of the venue so that they can recommend the Windmill and its girls to their clients.

Mrs Henderson Presents is at the Noel Coward Theatre, St Martin's Lane WC2N 4AU, until 18 June. Tickets £10-£67.50. Londonist attended on a complimentary press ticket.

Last Updated 20 February 2016