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Interview with Tracie Bennett

11 March 2016 | Lydia Cooper

Tracie Bennett has just begun playing Mrs Henderson in the hit new West End musical Mrs Henderson Presents. We chat about the male gaze, Bridget Jones and theatre recommendations.

London Calling: Mrs Henderson Presents opened earlier this month. Can you tell us a bit about the show?

Tracie Bennett: It’s a true story about the real-life Mrs Henderson, who bought the Windmill Theatre and turned it around into a successful business. She had the idea to run a ‘Nude Review’, which got the licence from the Lord Chamberlain on the condition that the naked girls did not move, making the performances into art, like statues in a museum. The show is set during the Second World War, and it’s a great British musical with a love story. Mrs Henderson looks out for her Windmill girls, and she has a great character arc: she squabbles a lot with Vivian Van Damm, who she appoints as the manager of the girls.

 

LC: Have you seen the film? It’s quite a lot of pressure to play the same part as Dame Judi Dench! Are you consciously trying to interpret the role differently for stage?

TB: I haven’t actually seen the film. I don’t think it’s a good idea to study somebody playing your character - it’s natural that everybody will compare me, as human beings we can’t help it. I never saw it because I was living in America at the time, and I’m afraid to see it now! But in our production the focus is more on Maureen than Mrs Henderson anyway, it’s her show, and Emma Williams is wonderful.

 

LC: I can imagine the British storyline would be a huge hit with American audiences, just like Kinky Boots was when it premiered in the US. Would you be interested in playing Mrs Henderson on Broadway?

TB: Oh undoubtedly - I have my green card which is a good start for getting over there! But the production team aren’t discussing that right now, we’ll see how the UK show goes first!

 

LC: Do you ever worry that Mrs Henderson Presents just fulfils the male gaze without making it more complex, by showing naked women? I read a particular review in which a male critic loved the show, although he essentially says that Maureen has a nice voice, but he’s more interested in her body...

TB: Yes, that review was five star! First of all, I would never stop a man from saying a woman is beautiful. It’s nature, and that’s fine. It’s not just about nudity. All of these women are stunning, porcelain, alabaster... I think he meant that in a jokey way, it’s nature for men, and I’m thrilled he thinks they’re all beautiful. When you see it, you realise that it’s not about nudity at all really. It’s about hope and courage and camaraderie, pride and faith and strength, human frailty and loss and joy. It’s even more extraordinary when you think that these women did this in 1937.  I think that British audiences are clever enough to see beyond the nudity. And what would we do if men stopped admiring us - we’d be furious! A compliment goes six months in my book, as Mark Twain would say.

 

LC: Did you do any research into the real woman that your character is based on? And if so did you uncover anything interesting?

TB: Yes I did actually, although there’s not a lot of material available, to be fair. I’ve read some contemporary material, and Vivian Van Damm’s book. One of my friends, Tim Arnold, his mother was a fan girl at the Windmill so I have information from her accounts. Every actor worth their salt will do that though. What stood out for me was the fact that Mrs Henderson didn’t want to just sit there doing embroidery, she was get up and go, she was on the committee for twenty different things, including the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund - how random! She owned two ballet companies in Russia! She employed people off the street, literally, and she let some of the Windmill girls live in her house.  She completely lacked snobbery compared with other middle class people at the time. I wish I could have met her, in a way. Even if you don’t personally connect with a character, you still have to unlock what’s interesting about them - I’ve played murderers before! -  but I’m very lucky with Mrs Henderson.

 

LC: You’ve worked extensively on television and on stage. Do you have a preference?

TB: I love them both. For theatre, you often have to take risks because it’s live and torturous and hard. You need stamina and you need to look after yourself. Whereas in television, it’s much more concentrated. I like doing both as much as I can.

 

LC: I read somewhere that you found it difficult having a huge mass of hair on your head for your character in Hairspray [a role that Bennett won an Olivier Award for].

TB: It’s not that hard, the interviewer definitely exaggerated.

 

LC: I guess it’s easy to look back on it with rose-tinted glasses...

TB: Trust me, I’m a northerner, we’re made of sterner stuff!

 

LC: You narrated the first two Bridget Jones audiobooks, which you won an Audie Award for. Would you ever be interested in narrating the third book (Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy)?

TB: Aren’t they doing a film as well? I will be waiting for the call! When I was doing it for the first two books, it was me in a dingy studio with a light bulb, and a sound engineer somewhere in the corner. My producer from Random House was listening and editing on the phone from New York as I spoke, and all I could think about was the phone bill! Plus the fact that I’m dyslexic - wrong world to be in! - and I ended up seeing sentences that weren’t there! But yes I’d love to do the third.

 

LC: It must have been such a fun experience to record, the books are hilarious.

TB: I got shouted during the recordings for messing around. I was almost sight-reading it because they gave it to me at 10pm and I had to highlight and edit it all myself, remembering their voices, plus being the dyslexic person I am... I remember getting shouted at because I turned the page and got to the bit where she’s in jail and has dropped to six stone, and I burst out laughing and I couldn’t stop! The New York producer told me to have a break and I said, ‘I’ve just sat down, but this is too hilarious!’ He sent me out of the studio and I had to have a coffee, get my shit together and just do it.

 

LC: What’s the best thing you’ve seen at the theatre recently?

TB: Well I’ve been living away doing a Jimmy Fallon sitcom for NBC, but I did see Grey Gardens, which Jenna Russell was in, I love her. And I’ve been intending to see Hangmen, but I’ve been doing my previews so can’t get down there. I did see Casa Valentina, my best friend Gareth Snook was in that and he was amazing. I have Tuesday nights off, so I intend to make that my theatre night and see as much as possible then!

 

Mrs Henderson Presents is on at the Noel Coward Theatre until 18 June 2016.

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