Flowers for Mrs Harris review at Chichester Festival Theatre – ‘rosy revival of musical with a poignant charm’
“I come from the people, they need to adore me / So Christian Dior me” demands Eva Peron as her publicity team set to work on creating an “Argentine Rose”. Also ‘of the people’ but otherwise entirely unlike that power-crazed diva is Flowers for Mrs Harris heroine Ada Harris, a careworn 53-year-old Battersea charwoman who falls head-over-heels for a client’s Dior dress and sets her heart on having her own – not to wear, but as “something to come home to”.
The wise char is a favourite trope in social comedy to expose the complacency of the privileged classes; rarely, if ever, is she the protagonist. American-in-Britain Paul Gallico’s exquisite 1958 novel is the quintessence of bittersweet.
Rachel Wagstaff’s sensitive adaptation accentuates the post-war austerity and provides additional emotional heft in making Mrs Harris a grief-stricken war widow still having chats with her beloved Albert, as well as gently probing the rigidity of the haves and have-nots of the British class system.
First performed as Daniel Evans’ final production at Sheffield Theatres in 2016 in which Mark Shenton acclaimed its “glowing warmth”, this revised staging at Evans’ new home theatre reinforces its poignant charms.
It’s a piece that requires an exceptionally delicate balance between spectacle and intimacy, which is achieved through the warmth of the performances and storytelling and Lez Brotherston’s emotive designs. However, it’s hard to ignore the feeling that the main house is too cavernous for this production and it would have been made to measure in the Minerva.
Richard Taylor’s score doesn’t contain showstoppers per se; rather, it consists of a fluid cascade of sound like shot silk, as if in harmony with the layers of embroidered chiffon and iridescent beadwork that comprise the dresses of Mrs Harris’ dreams.
Clare Burt’s lead performance is a joy. While she may be less twinkly than Gallico’s Mrs H, she is just as eternally generous, quietly resilient and fairy godmother-like. Showing that it’s never too late for a Cinderella/Eliza Doolittle moment, she turns up at the Dior showroom knowing far better than any of the posh clients what their dresses cost. She’s ready to pay – and by George she’ll get it.
The tight-knit ensemble, all of whom have London and Paris counterparts, are spotless, including Joanna Riding as the splendidly snooty Lady Dant and put-upon head vendeuse Madame Colbert; Laura Pitt-Pulford as sulky, aspiring starlet Pamela and radiant supermodel Natasha, and Claire Machin’s touchy but devoted best friend Violet.
The scenography is a delight, featuring silhouettes of industrial London beyond Mrs Harris’ shabby but cosy kitchen and Paris (though it feels like a scene involving a sightseeing tour of the City of Light is missing). A park bench tactfully appears at just the right moment, and a smiling-through-tears denouement features more than enough flowers for a royal wedding.