Chichester Festival’s first offering to the world of online theatre is a very recent musical which gathered many plaudits just a couple of years back. Flowers For Mrs Harris is based on Paul Gallico’s novel with a book by Rachel Wagstaff and music/lyrics by Richard Taylor. It is soundly directed by Daniel Evans.
The plotline is simple enough. Ada Harris, a post war cleaning lady with a highly positive work ethic and a too ready ear for the troubles of others, becomes captivated by the thought of owning (though “not to wear”) a gown by the rising French fashion designer Christian Dior. This represents everything she lacks in life and becomes almost an obsession. By dint of a little luck, a lot of hard graft and despite several setbacks (Act 1) she makes her way to Paris to make said purchase (Act 2). And that essentially is it. Except this show isn’t so much about the narrative as it is a study of stoicism in adversity and it is the characters that give the piece a degree of interest. By a nice conceit the cast double up so that they play one character in Battersea and then their doppelganger in Paris. The British characters are care worn with rationing still in force and living rather small lives. Their French counterparts, however, are considerably more stylish, even flamboyant. The resourceful Mrs Harris flourishes in both environments.
As Ada Harris, the redoubtable Clare Burt is never offstage. She sensibly avoids the charwoman stereotype so beloved of 1950s British films and instead finds the character’s inner strength and resilience, facing life as a widow and put upon by most of her clients. It is this resilience that drives her to achieve her heart’s desire, sacrificing her little comforts to scrape the money together to make that trip and buy that dress but still always putting other people first. The rest of the performers do sterling work with Mark Meadows, Claire Machin and Joanna Riding providing particularly good value. I have to say it wasn’t until the final credits rolled that I recognised Gary Wilmot had even been in the show – all credit to his skills of transformation.
Lez Brotherston’s effective designs kept things moving along at a brisk pace although one revolving section of the stage seemed to be perpetually in use to the point of giddiness. The wide expanses of the Chichester stage meant that Ada’s Battersea home looked a little lost, which was partly the point, but the grand staircase in Act 2 was put to very good use in the fashion parade. I’m not sure who was responsible for the Dior costumes or whether they were recreations of originals or newly minted creations “in the style of” but they were appropriately stunning. The flowers that threatened to crowd out the actors in the closing minutes were also spectacular.
The success or otherwise of any musical, however, rests with the score and the songs. Comparisons with Sondheim have apparently been drawn – I can’t say I could see the connection myself. Devoid of any really big central numbers there was plenty of emotion on display in the many (too many?) sung through sections of dialogue. I’d convinced myself that the big central number was going to come when Ada reached the Dior salon – but it never did so I felt slightly cheated. The execution of the band and the performers was unquestionably good, but the musical aspect was not what you would call memorable.
This is a timely production that examines the power of escaping from a locked down life and there are plenty of reviews online that found this a far more fulfilling piece of work than I did; so it’s probably just me. Although it was a pleasant enough way to spend Easter Sunday afternoon, I was left feeling somewhat unsatisfied.
Production photos by Johan Persson
Flowers For Mrs Harris is available via The Chichester Festival Theatre website until the end of the month
For further online theatre suggestions and news of newly released productions please click here
2 thoughts on “Flowers For Mrs Harris (#30plays30days – 12)”