For anyone familiar with how Soho used to be – or, in fact, with the film Mrs Henderson Presents starring Judi Dench – the revival of The Windmill is a fascinating performance.
In many ways, the Soho cleanup was both disappointing and welcome. What Soho has been in the recent past had a grubby charm, but much of it came at an obvious human expense – you have to take that into account. It is a kind of gentrification by Schrödinger; a cleaning that is good and bad at the same time. And at the heart of it all is The Windmill, as it has been for decades.
As the entertaining Mrs Henderson Presents reveals, The Windmill was home to nude showgirls who were known to stand still as statues and exploit a legal loophole that allowed nudity while the performer was motionless (described by many succinctly as “When it moves, it’s rude “.”). It was also home to the Windmill Steeplechase, an additional charge for occupying the front row for the best view.
It is known that The Windmill stayed open throughout the entire Blitz; his proud claim that “we never closed” predictably became “we never dressed”. It looked like a slightly daring movie theater in the ’60s before “adult entrepreneur” Paul Raymond (hey, it’s a nicer and more accurate term than “porn publisher”) bought it and brought back nudity (this time on the move) a number of plays, dance shows and dinner club cabarets.
“You mistook vulgarity for sexiness”
The Windmill has been a table dance venue for the past few years, but now, after a £ 10 million renovation, new owners Ryan Bishti and Amrit Walia have re-established the venue as a restaurant and cabaret that promises a “spectacular theatrical experience” . But does it deliver?
In one word? No. In other words, no, it doesn’t, but maybe I’m just middle-aged, grumpy and not laughing like scum because someone made an obvious dick joke. When I looked around the mostly much younger audience, visibly amused the general cabaret and the non-threatening menus and cocktails, I just felt very old.
On the plus side, I visited with a secret weapon. A very good friend of mine, Giles, was (notably) a male performer on The Windmill in the days of Paul Raymond and has many, many excellent stories. Unfortunately, this only made The Windmill’s weaknesses even more apparent.
For the sake of positivity – because it was a garbage year – we rattle through the negatives and get to good things as quickly as possible. The biggest downside, which Giles aptly pointed out, was the cabaret itself. “You mistook vulgarity for sexiness,” he said with a sigh. And they had.
They had also mistaken vulgarity for nervousness. Of course you would expect something daring from a show in this place, but it took less than a minute for the audience to be labeled “motherfuckers”. It was quickly followed by the comedy-musical trio, the knitted Cardigan Bs, who tried to get the still sober audience to join in with their “Wet Ass Pussy” song.
As their subsequent appearance – a devastatingly uncomfortable puppet routine – confirmed, their name was the most humorous thing about them. I could have lived without their “joking” insults when our paths later crossed on the stairs when I was trying to find the gentlemen. Yeah guys well done i’m bald. How wise of you to notice.
There were also some negatives that hopefully can be written off as teething troubles. The air silk actress was impressive to be seen, but all too often she was literally left in the dark. “There’s no point in having a follow spot,” Giles said between sips of an overly sweet La Vie En Rosé cocktail, “if they don’t follow.”
As for the dancers, the first routine wasn’t impressive – “our choreographer would be spinning in his grave,” remarked Giles – but the second was much, much better, suggesting that there was some talent both on and offstage are.
The food … well, at first sight it was harmless. The menu was apparently overseen by Andrew McLeish of the Michelin-starred Chapter One in Orpington.
I take their word for it because the execution hasn’t done anyone a favor, especially at £ 69 or £ 109 for three courses. This is considerably more expensive than Chapter One and even more so when you consider that the inserts are: a) extra; and b) ridiculously expensive. I mean 10 pounds of porridge, anyone? 12 pounds mac n cheese?
But the menu had a decent list of items – and the other diners seemed happier with their choices than we were. The carpaccio was pretty cold, but good, as was the raw vegetables. The tuna tacos were pleasant enough, if a little too processed and mushy. As for the chicken milanese … well, we liked the lemon a lot. Otherwise it was a pretty tasteless piece of egg white, albeit generously portioned, and we would have liked the “thousand-leaf potatoes” to have been as salty as the salad dressing.
Desserts followed a similar pattern. The chocolate and popcorn ice cream lollipops were lovely, but the mini sticky toffee pudding? We actually had to check the menu to make sure we heard our waiter correctly. I mean, I’m all for classic dishes, but this one was more Mars bar than pudding. And not as good as Mars.
“Employees deserve to be a hit”
And now to the good points, which are pretty much covered by one word: personnel.
The staff that The Windmill put together were impeccable across the board. The doorman was charming and funny. The glamorous team that greeted you and showed you to your table were charming and efficient. The general manager was omnipresent and, yes, charming.
The waiters were a little overzealous – we were asked four times or twice by people we had never met before if we would have liked our main course – but being friendly, knowledgeable and efficient, the overzealousness was easily forgiven.
The presenter of the show – a young Irish drag act – was sometimes overwhelmed on stage, but she was hilarious as hell and embodied the charm. The music was excellent too, just very loud. We noticed at least two other tables asking to come out from under a speaker, mainly because we wanted to ask the same thing.
However, to agree with the staff, they seemed to turn it down a bit, although the volume was most likely why we brought up a second round of somber, supposedly gin-based cocktails that neither of us remembered ordered.
The thing is, I would LOVE it if The Windmill did well. It is a bold attempt to offer London something other than the usual; a proper throwback to those glamorous, now romantically shabby days of yore, and the kind of eccentric distraction we are likely to need as we delve into the stage of Covid-related mayhem that we are now processing.
And as I said, we seemed to be in the minority when we visited; the younger / thinner / prettier people obviously had a long old time, happily dropping cash and dancing between the tables … while we just felt old. And hungry.
However, I wish the windmill all the best. It’s a bold move – double in the current situation – and the staff absolutely deserves to be a hit.
Soho Windmill, 17-19 Great Windmill Street, London W1D 7JZ; thewindmillsoho.com