As the 2016 Olivier Awards ceremony draws closer, new musical Mrs Henderson Presents is nominated in four categories. Ian Bartholomew, who plays Vivian Van Damm (played by Bob Hoskins in the screen original) is up for Best Actor In A Musical, and I spoke with him about the show.
JB: Ian, what attracted you to Mrs Henderson Presents?
IB: I was working with Terry Johnson (who has both directed and written the book for Mrs Henderson Presents) in Oh What a Lovely War! at the Theatre Royal Stratford East and he was doing some demos for this show. So I went along, did the songs, read the script and thought, you know what? I’d really like a crack at this.
Parts for gentlemen of a certain age don’t come along like that. There’s a bit of a love interest, there are some cracking songs, there are a few laughs and my character Vivian Van Damm is very much at the centre of the show. Towards the end of the first half when Van Damm sings his big ballad Living In A Dream World, it takes the show to a different area. It’s not just about the nudity, the musical and the fluff that everybody sees. There’s heart and tragedy to it. The war and the Holocaust are happening and it takes the show into a place that you don’t expect.
JB: You mentioned Oh What A Lovely War! a musical that offers a particularly powerful message about the 1914-18 conflict. Here, your character is telling a very difficult message about the time of the Second World War. Tell me your thoughts on the potential of musical theatre to educate.
IB: Education is not a word that you’d normally associate with musical theatre, though I don’t mean to denigrate the genre in any way. I think any good theatre should make you think. When it makes you think, it may make you want to go and read up on the subject you’ve seen. You may talk about it with people and all good theatre should do that. Particularly with Oh! What A Lovely War which was, (and I use this word sparingly because it’s used far too much) an “iconic” show. It did something that nobody had expected, packing an incredibly powerful message wrapped up in this confection of an end of the pier show.
I think that juxtaposition is what worked for Oh! What A Lovely War, making it so powerful and I think, Mrs. Henderson has elements of that too.
JB: What has it been like to work on the development of a new musical?
IB: It’s always been very intense. Terry knew exactly what he wanted from the show. He’s no fool, our Terry. He’s a real craftsman and a showman.
JB: Were you involved much with Don Black, the show’s lyricist, as the production developed?
IB: Don was always around and very supportive and encouraging. Of course the creative process as regards the writing was always done elsewhere. They’d take it away to be fashioned and hammered out in a room somewhere else, as we were going on with our routines and scenes.
JB: What has it been like to work with two of musical theatre’s most talented ladies, Tracie Bennett and Emma Williams?
IB: Tracie and I have worked together a lot over the years. We did Guys and Dolls together in Sheffield actually where she was Miss Adelaide to my Nathan Detroit. That was great fun and we developed an understanding and a language of how to work with each other.
Tracie approaches it in a completely different way to me. Both of us respect each other’s way of working. We just sort of go with it and whatever comes out of it we then put together and make it work. We do laugh a lot. Tracie can be very blunt and I quite like that. I’d rather know where I am then somebody hedging around it. We have a very easy relationship on stage and we support each other a lot.
With Emma, she’s just got this glorious voice. She’s very particular in how she works, crafting things and you just let her get on with it.
What I tend to do is to let things flow around me and see how I react to it. I never go into a room with a very fixed idea of what I’m going to do, I let it develop. Whereas Tracie and Emma had started very quickly to have a very clear idea of what they were doing and I would just go with it. They’re both fantastic in their separate ways. They fulfil their roles within the show, I think, brilliantly.
JB: And finally, what else would you like to say about Mrs Henderson Presents?
IB: I’m very proud of it. I think it’s a well-crafted piece of work that is new, original and British. It’s about a part of the British character that I think was very prevalent during the War and I think is very important to be remembered.
I also think it’s quite a brave show to put on. It’s an “old-fashioned, modern” musical. I know that may sound odd but the story is very relevant to the time in which the show is set. It’s like an old musical but it’s not, because you know, 20 years ago you wouldn’t have been able to put something like this on. I’m just very proud of it.
JB: Thank you very much for your time and good luck for the Oliviers this weekend!
The Olivier Awards are presented this weekend. Mrs Henderson Presents is booking until 18th June