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Flowers for Mrs Harris
Based on the novel by Paul Gallico; Book by Rachel Wagstaff; Music and lyrics by Richard Taylor
Chichester Festival Theatre, West Sussex
Until 29 September, 2018
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
This show is that rare thing, a new British book musical. That is to say not a jukebox show. Expectations among musical theatre cognoscenti have therefore been through the roof as they see a bloom appearing in the usual desert but, I'm sad to say, this bloom is rather fake.
Daniel Evans, the Artistic Director in Chichester, first produced it in 2016 in his last berth in Sheffield, where it received rave reviews. A London production was expected but so far it has reached West Sussex. It is also significant in that the great Clare Burt, who has been one of the consistently excellent unsung stars of the West End for 30 years now, finally gets a major title role.
Based on Paul Gallico's 1958 novella Mrs 'arris Goes to Paris [sic] the plot revolves around Cockney 'char lady' (a cleaner) Ada Harris (Burt) who is so enchanted by a Dior gown she comes across in her employer's wardrobe that she becomes determined to go to the House of Dior in Paris to purchase one. This is the grim 1950s of ration coupons and misery however, where the working classes never traveled. With the gowns costing upwards of £500, the equivalent of a year's wages for her, she has to scrimp and save for 5 years to attain it. Now, I don't know how many cleaners you know, but they generally have their heads tightly screwed on and know the value of a penny and the idea they would endure such privation for the mere touch of a Chanel pleat stretches credibility beyond its limits.
Fans of the gossamer piece, and there are many, will point out that this is not about the value of the dress but about the allure of a world of luxury, sensuality and style and that this dream fills the huge void left in her life by the loss of her husband in the War. His ghost appears frequently however and they speak but because he is such a corporeal presence it is hard to square that with her feeling his loss to this extent.
Her emotional turmoil doesn't detract from the fact that her motive is idiotic and building the whole emotional arc of the show around it is dubious. It is both patronising to working class woman and in awe of the super-rich and their supposed 'taste'. Of course when she gets to Paris they treat her like dirt but she wins them over with her 'simple' charm and endearing English eccentricity. This whole piece is pickled in the 50s and indeed Gracie Fields was perfect casting in the first TV version in 1958.
Nevertheless, a dedicated band has devoted years to this musical and the end result is both polished and slick. Richard Taylor's score is rich and varied, but it contains no stand out numbers and even the 'Beautiful Girls' moment, when the Dior models descend a grand staircase dressed in Les Brotherston's recreations of the gowns, lacks emotional punch.
Rachel Wagstaff had the task of adapting the novel and with director Evans they have done wonders in condensing the multi character story and giving it dynamism, aided by the famous Chichester revolve which literally propels the action.
The thinness of the material though can't be escaped and what is odd is that the cast is packed with impressive West End names (Joanna Riding, Gary Wilmot, Laura Pitt Pulford and Louis 'Grinning Man' Maskell) in supporting roles, all of which are cardboard, but still delivered with great brio. No character really develops and everyone is a 'type' down to the Marquis from central casting who woos Mrs Harris away from her scrubbing brush. Burt does wonders, especially vocally, in giving some nuance to Ada, but she is given a run for her money by Claire Machin, as best friend Vi, who lifts every scene she is in.
It is however winsome to the point of sickliness and while many will find it charming it reminds us that charm can also be deadly.