Book: Rachel Wagstaff
Music and lyrics: Richard Taylor
Director: Daniel Evans
Paul Gallico’s 1958 novel, originally titled Mrs ‘Arris Goes to Paris, recalls the spirit of a post-war Europe dominated by austerity, in which community spirit and altruistic deeds counted for more than personal ambitions. Therefore, this musical adaptation for the stage resonates particularly strongly at the present time.
Daniel Evans first directed the show at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in 2016, but it is his 2018 revival at the Chichester Festival Theatre which has been filmed here. As more than half the story takes place in Battersea, it seems curious that the show has not (yet) been seen in London. Ada Harris (Clare Burt) is a cleaning lady, widowed in the First World War, who has spent 33 years dusting and scrubbing for various clients at the rate of three shillings an hour. Having insisted that she is happy with her lot, she sees a Christian Dior dress, becomes overwhelmed by its beauty and, with the help of friends, sets about getting one for herself.
In the first act Chichester’s large round stage looks too big for Lez Brotherston’s set designs. The Harris living room seems like an island in a sea of cobblestones and wide-angle shots accentuate the lack of intimacy, which could have been a problem for live audiences. Once the camera moves in closer, we become drawn into the drama immediately. When the action moves to France for the second act, the show expands, with a central grand staircase set against the backdrop of the Paris skyline. The tone also changes, with injections of comedy and romance and the Dior fashion show is staged like a spectacular production number.
Rachel Wagstaff’s book tells the story clearly, resorting to excessive sentimentality only in the closing stages. With music and lyrics coming from the same source, Richard Taylor, the sung sections gel together perfectly and comparisons with Stephen Sondheim perhaps become inevitable. If so, the comparisons are not unfavourable and some beautiful melodies build up with added touches of grand opera. The 10-piece orchestra, conducted by Tom Brady, sounds wonderful in this recording.
Dressed in a drab half-sleeved overall, Burt captures both the resignation of one of life’s losers and the wide-eyed optimism of a dreamer. Ada’s duets with her dead husband (Mark Meadows) are extremely moving, while her friendship with fellow cleaning lady, Violet (Claire Machin) has a ring of truth. Clever double casting sees Joanna Riding, Gary Wilmot, Laura Pitt-Pulford and others turn in strong performances both as characters in Battersea and closely matching ones in Paris.
Evans gives the production a smooth flow, making extensive use of the revolving stage to keep the cobblestones moving in both London and Paris. He brings out Gallico’s themes of class inequality strongly and does well to merge together the contrasting styles of the two acts. With its uplifting messages, Flowers for Mrs Harris is a blooming good tonic for these troubled times.