Flowers for Mrs Harris
Based on the novel by Paul Gallico, book by Rachel Wagstaff, music and lyrics by Richard Taylor
Flowers for Mrs Harris can be described as a "modern musical". It is reminiscent in musical style and content of Sondheim's Company which was performed at Sheffield Theatres in 2011.
The eponymous heroine is a 50-year-old charwoman living in post-war austerity in Battersea whose husband was killed in the war. She is a character of great humanity, cheerful, hard working and uncomplaining with exceptional understanding and empathy for other people, including the miscellaneous group she works for.
She is sustained by memories of her loving relationship with her husband Albert and her friendship with good neighbour and fellow charwoman Violet.
The musical is based on a novel by Paul Gallico, and from this Wagstaff and Taylor weave a story, grounded in reality, but with fairytale elements.
Ada is happy enough with her lot until she sees a glorious gown in the wardrobe of one of her employers. She is determined to own such a dress, not to wear but just to look at, as she does with the flowers that she loves.
The unfolding story takes us from her humble home in London to the catwalk of Dior’s recently established fashion house in Paris and an impressive array of "New Look" gowns.
The first half is particularly moving, as Ada denies herself even meagre comforts in order to save the money to achieve her dream. The music is unlike traditional musicals with their set songs and choruses, but instead is interwoven into the action in a style which perfectly complements the realism of the setting and affecting emotion of the story. When the whole company sings, the harmonies and orchestration are distinctive and consistent with the highly original style of the composition.
Clare Burt as Ada, Mark Meadows as husband Albert and Anna-Jane Casey as Violet perform with sensitivity, rapport and exceptionally realistic characterisation to make the "ordinary" characters completely convincing.
Actors playing supplementary roles in the London setting reappear as different characters when the action moves to Paris in the second half. Laura Pitt-Pulford, the selfish, egocentric, near-hysterical London starlet Pamela, becomes the charming model Natasha in the Paris setting, Mark Meadows reappears as the elegant and sophisticated Marquis de Chassagne and Rebecca Caine, Lady Dant in London, is the harassed but essentially likeable Madame Colbert, in charge of the Paris fashion show.
Lez Brotherston’s set makes effective use of the Crucible’s understage lifts and transforms easily into the couture house setting. The Dior costumes are simply stunning and beautifully presented by the team of professional models who display them.
This is Daniel Evans’s final production for Sheffield Theatres and the staging of a new musical reflects his interest in alternative musical theatre. I am sure Sheffield’s loss will be Chichester’s gain, and that Daniel will continue to delight audiences with the quality and variety of his work.
Reviewer: Velda Harris