Book: Rachel Wagstaff based on the novel by Paul Gallico
Music and Lyrics: Richard Taylor
Director: Daniel Evans
Reviewer: Simon Topping
Director Daniel Evans brings this award-winning 2016 musical, from his previous creative home in Sheffield, to Chichester for its first outing since its revision and shortening of act one.
Set in a food and clothes rationed, shell-shocked, south London in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, Flowers for Mrs. Harris encapsulates the British spirit of ‘keep clam and carry on’. As the audience first meet the stoic Ada Harris, she proclaims that, “unlike a policeman, her lot is a very happy one”. A char lady in Battersea, with a series of demanding clients, Ada keeps on smiling throughout, determined to see the best in everyone and everything. That is until she sets her eyes on a new client’s gloriously sumptuous Christian Dior dress and an inner transformation occurs. This proves to be a euphoric self-awakening; a sight she cannot un-see, which sends our central character on a journey of self-discovery in the ambition to acquire a comparable garment of beauty herself, direct from the designers in Paris.
The staging is sparse and uses its unique turning circular platform strip well to move scenes along and intertwine stories as the production progresses. The central location of Ada’s kitchen is reminiscent of Raymond Briggs’s (The snowman) wonderful evocative drawings in his touching comic, Ethel and Ernest. It is a splash of mid twentieth century colour and working class style, with a teapot constantly brewing in the corner.
Act one slowly unfolds as we are introduced to the range of eccentric people who employ Ada, as she scrimps and saves for her luxury dress. Central to the piece is the relationship between Ada and her life long friend and next door neighbour, Violet.
A faster-paced act two begins in the house of Dior and some impressive french speaking interplay between the cast and some shimmering Dior recreations on display proving to be a delightful feast of colour for the eyes.
With barely a moment off stage Clare Burt, excels as Mrs Harris in her kind and soulful portrayal. Claire Machin as best friend Violet, works very well with Burt as her onstage soul sister and has some fabulous comedy moments. This is sense of fun carried into act two when she doubles up as a particularly truculent French char lady in the Paris scenes.
The dreamlike score by Richard Taylor, which is almost entirely sung throughout, soars in and out and effortlessly washes into the mind to help carry the story on. Whilst there are no outstanding pieces here, like a jukebox musical, the ambience and beauty of the music dovetails perfectly with the written piece.
There is plenty of comedy in this tale. Gary Wilmot shines as the Major, Loui Meskell proves to be a wonderfully clowning fool and Claire Machin, as Violet gets the biggest laughs with her sublimely simple nature, cutting through any overly sentimental moments.
As the story unfolds we are shown that, unlike Pretty Woman, Ada does not need saving by a man in an attempt to improve her life but takes control of her own destiny through hard work and by the kindness she shows to all she meets. Having the courage to take the lead in her adventure sees she will never be lonely again.
Let’s have more of these musicals centred around women and the stories they have to tell, until it no longer becomes a taking point that women in their fifties, like here, take centre stage. It should be commonplace. And, if all future productions turn out to be half as good as Flowers for Mrs. Harris audiences would be in for a fabulous run of heartwarming treats.
Runs until 29 September 2018 | Image: Johan Persson