Director Daniel Evans is going out on a high after seven years at the artistic helm of Sheffield Theatres before he takes over at Chichester Festival Theatre. Not only is his sumptuous revival of the Broadway classic Show Boat, premiered last Christmas at Sheffield, currently adding grace, style and dignity to the choppy waters of the West End, but for his final production he has nurtured and shepherded a brand-new British musical to the stage that’s a poignant, winning portrait of friendship and of trying to fulfil seemingly unreachable dreams.
The book — based on a 1958 novel by Paul Gallico that was the first in a series of books about a London charwoman’s adventures in Paris, New York and Moscow — is ripe for musical treatment, since musicals are so often based on personal quests and wish fulfilment. But Rachel Wagstaff’s book and Richard Taylor’s virtually through-sung score lends it a very British kind of aching longing and steadfast determination that never seems strident but always feels plausible. There are no applause breaks to disrupt the flow, either, just a glowing warmth that spreads infectiously across the entire auditorium.
The titular widow, Ada Harris, has been a char for 33 years, still having conversations with her late husband for company, even though her best friend and fellow char, Violet Butterfield, also a widow, pops in for tea a lot. One day, covering for Violet at one of her more challenging clients, Ada sees a Christian Dior dress and becomes determined to own one for herself.
Clare Burt, burning with an inner radiance and goodness beneath a dowdy exterior, portrays Ada as a woman on a mission, and one we can all root for as she scrimps and saves for two and a half years for the £550 the dress would cost her. In the process, she changes not just her own life, but repeatedly the lives of those around her, whether as casual matchmaker for an accountant and fashion model at the designer label, or by providing a lesson to others in standing up to authority.
If it is very much Burt’s show, there’s also tremendous support from Anna-Jane Casey, Louis Maskell, Rebeca Caine, Laura Pitt-Pulford and Nicola Sloane who each double up in different roles for Act I, set in London, and Act II, in Paris, that provide a kind of mirror of each other.
Just as in London Road (that also featured Burt) flowers play a radiant part in the finale, though I won’t spoil it by revealing how. Suffice to say this show is as radiant and ravishing as a bouquet of roses. “Life without flowers is not any life at all,” goes one line – and this musical happily is full of flowers, life and yearning love.