February has been a busy month for West End theatre with a host of new openings to entice audiences into London theatres this spring.
Top of my list is the new musical Mrs Henderson Presents at the Noel Coward Theatre, St Martin’s Lane. Based on the 2005 film of the same name, it is a heartwarming spectacle without a single dud song, which charts the fortunes of a savvy pensioner as she turns around the profits of the Windmill Theatre in Soho in the years before and during the second world war. Failing to find a suitable audience for her motley review show, she decides to go a step further and have the girls performing in the nude. During a very funny number where she attempts to convert the Lord Chamberlain to her risque idea she comes up with the concept that the women will be entirely still, like paintings in a gallery, and so the tableaux show is conceived that sees the theatre filled every night with young soldiers on leave. Superb performances by Tracie Bennett as Mrs Henderson, Ian Bartholomew as her sidekick manager Vivian Van Damm and the young love interest, tea girl-turned performer Emma Williams. The book is pacy and funny, which is no surprise seeing as it’s been adapted by Terry Johnson, who also directs. George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain have written some cracking songs that hit just the right note between humour and pathos.
Booking until 18 June. Get tickets online or call 0844 482 5140.
There is singing of a different kind over on the Lyttleton stage of the National Theatre as part of the revival of American playwright, August Wilson’s 1984 play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. This is a big, bold production about early 20th-century race relations with the action of the play contained during a rehearsal and recording of the real-life singer Ma Rainey and her band in a Chicago studio in 1927. The bisexual blues singer is played with delicious divaish gusto by Sharon D Clarke, who was Lola Griffin in Holby City for three years and has been dividing her time between plays and musicals since leaving the TV soap in 2008. But Wilson makes clear that although she has clout in the studio – pausing proceedings to demand a coke – outside in the real world she is seen as just another black woman (she arrives in the studio with a police escort). However, the main meat of the play is in the discussions and diatribes of the four band members, who, in Dominic Cooke’s production, are confined to the lower basement for much of the play while the white studio bosses hover above in a soundproof booth. O-T Fagbenle is mesmerising as young Levee who wants to sell his songs to the studio and harbours a deep resentment against white folk, while Lucian Msamati as book-learned Toledo has some captivating monologues. Despite the glorious music, the play is depressing in its depiction of division. However, the diverse audience was united in their standing ovation the day I saw it.
Booking until 18 May. Get tickets online or call 020 7452 3000.
Over at the Royal Court veteran British playwright Caryl Churchill’s first full-length play in several years is playing to packed houses. Escaped Alone sees four women in their 60s and 70s discussing the domestic and the epic. The characters are played by veteran actresses Linda Bassett, Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham and June Watson. They sit in deck chairs in a garden drinking tea and talking, while every so often Linda Bassett’s character Mrs Jarrett, breaks out to address the audience directly and tell of an apocalypse where 80% of food has been diverted to TV programmes and breakfast is viewed on the iPlayer, and where kayak stocks rise in line with the floods. The extreme societal collapse that Mrs Jarrett describes is both humorous and absurd and alarmingly believable. In the garden we have overlapping lines broken by heart-felt monologues and, at one point, a full rendition of the Crystal’s “Da Do Ron Ron”, just for the sheer hell of it.
Booking until 12 March. Buy tickets online or call 020 7565 5000.
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