Ooh er, that Laura Henderson, she may be a toff, but she knows how to give our boys a good time. Mind you, there ain’t nothing dirty about what she’s putting on at the Windmill. It’s art, like posh people look at in galleries. If they can look at nudies, why can’t we? Anyway, her girls might be naked as the day they was born, but they’re nice girls from respectable families. No bit of old rope on that stage. Besides who would begrudge letting the boys get an eyeful before they go off to fight for king and country? We all need a laugh with Hitler’s bombs falling on our ‘eads.
Which sums up Mrs Henderson Presents about the Windmill Theatre in Soho where the very Upper Mrs Henderson (Judi Dench) and her decidedly non-U stage manager Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins) got away with running nude shows in the 1930s and ’40s because her friend the Lord Chamberlain advised them to skirt Britain’s draconian censorship laws by offering tableaux of famous paintings. As long as the women did not move it was art not erotica – though I do not recall many paintings in the National Gallery featuring Annie Oakley or fan dances.
In Mrs Henderson Presents director Stephen Frears, with Hoskins as co-producer, present a slice of social history as musical comedy. The emphasis is on the latter – what it tells us about British attitudes to sex, nudity or war could be written on the back of a Donald McGill postcard.
Martin Sherman’s script is full of titters in the tradition of the theatre’s famous sons, notably Frankie Howerd. Judi Dench gets all the best lines, but who can blame Sherman? Dench’s timing and delivery is on the money, reminding British audiences that before the Oscars, she was best known here for the sitcom As Time Goes By.
Period detail is everything in a film like this and Frears and his team, including award-laden costumier Sandy Powell, deliver it. Grimy Soho streets, posh Belgravia drawing rooms and winsome musical numbers featuring Pop Idol graduate Will Young bring to mind an innocent age and the lighter moments of another Hoskins period piece, Pennies From Heaven.
Sadly here Hoskins is uncharacteristically weak, thanks to the air of refinement he tries to lend Van Damm through a strangulated RP accent. It is distracting and undermines his performance. Thelma (Mavis Wilton) Barlow’s Lady Conway presents a similar problem, while Young as camp pretty boy Bertie – no typecasting there – suggests he should not rush to give up the day job.
To be fair an actor of Dench’s calibre is always in danger of outshining the rest of the cast, and she does so here. Only Christopher Guest and Kelly Reilly rise to the challenge. But see it for Dench. She is bright, funny and twinkle-in-the-eye wicked. A joy to watch. You can tell she is having fun. And who can blame her after playing all those dead queens and troubled writers?