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Flowers for Mrs Harris (Susan Elkin reviews)

Flowers for Mrs Harris – ★★★★
Based on the novel by Paul Gallico. Book by Rachel Wagstaff. Music & lyrics by Richard Taylor.
society/company: Chichester Festival Theatre (professional)(directory)
performance date: 14 Sep 2018
venue: Festival Theatre, Chichester
 

★★★★

[Above: Clare Burt, Joanna Riding, Mark Meadows and members of the company as Dior models in FLOWERS FOR MRS HARRIS at Chichester Festival Theatre. Directed by Daniel Evans Designed by Lez Brotherston Lighting by Mark Henderson. Photo by Johan Persson]

Mrs Ada Harris (Clare Burt) is a char lady working hard and loyally for “my clients” in the austerity of 1947. She has kept herself modestly since her husband (Mark Meadows) died at Passchendaele although he lives on, and ages alongside her in her mind and on stage. Then, in this gentle story, based on a Paul Gallico story and written by Rachel Wagstaff, Mrs H sees a photograph of a Dior dress, saves up and, against considerable odds, travels to Paris to buy it.

This show opens with dialogue and only gradually segues into rather hesitant music led by Tom Brady whose conducting hands protrude from a hole in the floor at the downstage apex of the playing space. Most of Richard Taylor’s score is unassuming, in a lilting conversational way. Much of it works like naturalistic recitative and there are few songs in the conventional musical theatre sense. It takes a while to get used to this and, frankly at the interval, I had this marked down as rather plodding two star show with far too much pointless marching round CFT’s revolve. By the end of the incomparably better second half it had acquired a couple more stars.

The scene in which Mrs Harris finally sees a parade of Dior dresses sweeping on models down a central staircase is as theatrically effective as, say the masques in The Tempest or, in a different mood, the procession of kings in Macbeth. There is something mesmerizingly magical about it and we are as stunned as Mrs Harris is. What fun, designer Lez Brotherston must have had with this. Then there’s the ending which moved me to tears because this is actually a story about happiness, friendship, helping others and moving on. It’s marvellously upbeat without being remotely sentimental or cloying.

Burt catches Mrs Harris’s rueful sadness tempered with a lot of kindness and wisdom perfectly and her wistful singing voice works beautifully here. And when she smiles for Mrs Harris it’s like the sun coming out. Claire Machin is hilarious as Mrs Harris’s supportive, lumpy friend and neighbour and outstanding as a French cleaning lady with a splendid morose Gallic shrug. Meadows does well too as the kindly dead husband so often present to advise when Mrs Harris is on her own.

There is some impressive doubling here because there is a new set of characters in Paris. Louis Maskell, for example, is entertaining as the ill-at-ease Dior employee who conveys his unspoken passion for Laura Pitt-Pulford’s Natasha mostly with his knees. He and Pitt-Pulford (who is also good back in London as one of Mrs Harris’s more self-obsessed clients) work well together especially in French.

Daniel Evans, who directs this thoughtful show, first staged it in 2016 in his former role as Artistic Director at Sheffield. It’s a rather lovely thing for him to have revived at Chichester and adds a different mood to this year’s pleasingly varied season after Me and My GirlCopenhagen and other delights.

[Below: Luke Latchman (Wireless Commentator) and Gary Wilmot (Major) in FLOWERS FOR MRS HARRIS at Chichester Festival Theatre. Directed by Daniel Evans Designed by Lez Brotherston Lighting by Mark Henderson. Photo by Johan Persson]

 This review was first published by Sardines: http://www.sardinesmagazine.co.uk/reviews/review.php?REVIEW-Chichester%20Festival%20Theatre%20(professional)-Flowers%20for%20Mrs%20Harris%20-%20%E2%98%85%E2%98%85%E2%98%85%E2%98%85&reviewsID=3321
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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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