Mrs Henderson Presents is a night of joy and tears

February 18, 2016

When I watch a show for the first time, I may hope to be amused or enthralled, moved to pity or left elated. But rarely can a musical help us to access all of these varied emotions in one night.

Yet, Mrs Henderson Presents, a production I am honoured to support, is indeed one of those rare theatrical events which seems to move the audience between joy and tears effortlessly. It has deservedly just received nominations for four of this year’s Olivier Awards: MasterCard Best New Musical, Best Actor in a Musical, Best Actress in a Musical and Best Actress in a Supporting Role in a Musical.

The show tells the true story of the Windmill Theatre, which began showing naked female tableaux in the late 1930s, in order to save money and stay open. To do so, its owner – the redoubtable Laura Henderson (played by Tracie Bennett) must outwit, with hilarious cunning, the British establishment, in the form of the Lord Chancellor who forbids nudity on stage.

As Mrs Henderson tricks her way past his objections, and then manager Vivian Van Damm (Ian Bartholomew) cajoles his actresses into disrobing, the audience is left in wonder and amusement.

Yet, happiness is often when we are all at our most vulnerable. Just as the carefree theatricals think the fun will never end – a feeling shared by the audience – so the Second World War breaks out. The tension and mood change swiftly, and our laughter is transmuted into feelings of fierce patriotism, sadness and grave concern, in time with the actors’ own emotional progression.

Mrs Henderson inspires us when she refuses to close the theatre, saying: “If we are to ask our youth to surrender their lives, then we should not ask them to surrender joy – or the possibility of joy!” Here we see her acknowledging that complexity of feeling which defines the human condition: when we are at our unhappiest we can always find some moment of joy, and vice versa.

A great theatrical performance can of course be about escapism and release. But it can often help us too to explore our sentiments. As American actor Willem Dafoe explains: “Great theatre is about challenging how we think and encouraging us to fantasise about a world we aspire to.”

Mrs Henderson Presents transports the audience by promoting the idea of living in a world where one is never cowed into living a lie, where it is normal to respond to challenges with real creative thinking, where loyalty is never forced, and where justifiable sadness and bliss can co-exist in peace.

Bruno Wang, founder of Bruno Wang Productions