London, 1937. Mrs Laura Henderson, a woman of wealth and connections, has just buried her beloved husband. And now she’s bored. At 69, she is far too energetic and vital to fade into gentle widowhood. What she needs, says her friend Lady Conway, is a hobby. Collecting diamonds, perhaps? Or doing charitable works? But, to the shock of her friends she instead buys a theatre – the Windmill Theatre in the heart of Soho.
She knows nothing about running it, so she hires a manager: enter Vivian Van Damm. A showbiz pro, he is shocked too by Mrs Henderson: she is outrageous, provocative and eccentric. And rather rude. Van Damm bans her from rehearsals owing to her endless interference, so she dresses up as a Chinese matron, then a polar bear, to spy on him. Their love-hate relationship sparks fireworks – and historic innovations in British theatre.
Van Damm’s idea for Revuedeville, or non-stop entertainment, is a first, and the Windmill is packed – until other theatres copy it. Then it’s Laura’s turn to devise another first – put naked girls on stage!
Giving in to her persuasive powers, the Lord Chamberlain, the censor, grants them a licence, on the condition the naked girls don’t move, thus imitating art. The Windmill’s tableaux, or naked girls in themed settings, are a sensational hit with British families and the troops, many of whom are off to fight in the war.
But as the bombing of London begins, the government threatens to close the theatre. Mrs Henderson’s fighting spirit is revealed – and so is the secret that drew her to buy the Windmill in the first place.