Before the arrival of the bombers, Frears’s film breathlessly recounts the beginnings of the unlikely partnership between recent widow Laura Henderson – a wealthy septuagenarian who buys a derelict West End theatre because she is ‘bored with widowhood’ – and Vivian Van Damm, a respected theatre impresario who she employs to manage the place. Van Damm has the wizard idea of staging all-day, non-stop entertainment (‘Revuedeville’), to which Henderson throws nudity into the mix (‘Let’s have naked girls!’). As their theatre kicks into life, we witness plenty of gutsy performances; Kelly Reilly shines among the chorus girls as Maureen, a non-professional persuaded by Van Damm to strip in the name of art.
Off-stage, we are party to a near-romantic clash of two distinct personalities: Van Damm, experienced and no-nonsense, and Henderson, a headstrong woman of no theatrical experience but plenty of forthright opinions (auditions are ‘barbaric’, she declares). At points, it feels like there’s something a little too innocent, too velvety, too soft-focus, too clean about the whole enterprise. But thankfully this is largely offset by a self-consciously naughty, epigram-laden script by Martin Sherman.
In the latter stages of the film, images of war – both real and imagined – have a sobering effect. Grief and secrecy add weight to gentle pantomime: Henderson mourns a 21-year-old son who she lost in the First World War, while Van Damm denies his Dutch Jewish heritage. The outbreak of war exposes equally these personal traumas and the compassion at the heart of Frears’s superb new film.