I remember reading about Flowers for Mrs Harris before it opened in Sheffield a couple of years back and finding that it failed to pique my interest much. Paul Gallico is a writer whose work has never drifted my way, and the bare bones of the story – post-war London charlady goes to Paris to buy a Dior dress – sounded horribly rooted in class and stereotype as well as sentimentally mushy. But then I read the reviews, and admitted to myself that I must have made a mistake.
Now that Daniel Evans has taken over the reins at Chichester, I’m not surprised to see Flowers for Mrs H revived in the Festival Theatre, and the timing was right for Professor and Mrs Plum, Lord Liverpool, the Countess of Cockfosters and Mrs Chrisparkle and me to incorporate it as one of our theatrical weekends. The Countess had actually read the book in her youth; I don’t think she rated it much, so it was bold of her to consent to attending.
London, 1947; free from the tyranny of war, but not of its austerity consequences. Widowed Mrs Harris and her next-door neighbour friend, widowed Mrs Butterfield, just about scrape a living by cleaning the houses of a variety of clients, from posh Lady Dant to wannabe actress Pamela, from a cantankerous retired Major to desperate writer Bob. But it’s when Mrs H goes to Lady D’s to clean (rather than Mrs B, who’s her usual daily) that she espies a Christian Dior dress hanging up in her wardrobe; and it’s the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen. She goes home, chats to the spirit of her dead husband (as you do) and decides then and there that she must have one. Trouble is – it’s £450 – that’s £12,500 in today’s money. It’s going to take her years and years to save. But if Mrs H is one thing, she’s tenacious. She has her dream and she’s not going to let it go. But what happens when Mrs ‘Arris gets to Paris (to almost quote the US name of the book), and just how welcome is une femme de ménage at the exclusive Dior showroom?
The book has been adapted into this production by Rachel Wagstaff, who also adapted Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong for the stage; and given a musical score by Richard Taylor who had composed the music for the Royal and Derngate’s production of The Go-Between in 2011. To my mind this is a much more successful venture than either of those previous shows. You won’t find any linguistic or musical fireworks on display in this production; I’ve heard comparisons with Sondheim in the composition department and, personally, I think that’s way off the mark. This is not remotely Sondheimesque; there are no glitteringly memorable tunes nor starkly powerful lyrics that set your teeth on edge at the truths they reveal. But that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy them. They create a mellifluous wash-over experience, accompanying the stage actions and the storytelling, but never taking over your attention or your senses.
Sentimental? Most definitely yes. Mushy? Surprisingly no. The characterisations throughout are very strong and it’s written with honesty and integrity so that the audience fully appreciates the motivations for what takes place. However, the story itself is delicate and sensitively told. We didn’t quite get a tear in the eye on a few occasions in the second act, but it wasn’t far off. What you do come away from this show with, is a sense that kindness and decency go a long way in making the world a brighter place; the more you give, the more you get. Despite the lack of welcome she receives in Paris, the kindness she gives spreads out like ripples in the water. Happy ending? That’s up to you to decide, depending on your own priorities in life. The colour and light that comes into her world at the end (and indeed, on to the Festival Theatre stage) are unmistakeably heart-warming and life-enhancing.
As you would expect, the creative team have gone all out to make this a show to please all the senses. Tom Brady’s ten-piece band deliver Richard Taylor’s score with passion and depth. Lez Brotherston (who else?) has created a deceptively simple set that utilises a revolving track to create the illusion of space, distance and movement brilliantly; and the modest furniture of Ada’s London kitchen drops in and out of view with satisfyingly technical precision. There’s some very inventive use of the staircase, and – no question – some stunning frocks on display in the Paris showroom. And don’t forget those flowers. All those flowers. How can flowers be so emotional?
At the heart of the show is a great performance by Claire Burt as Mrs Harris; battered by life’s experiences but incredibly resilient and hugely generous of spirit. Having seen Miss Burt earlier this year as Miss Littlewood, I know that she has an incredible stage presence and a wonderful way of connecting with the audience. Ada Harris doesn’t have the same brash self-confidence that Joan Littlewood does, so Miss Burt channels all her stage efforts to reflect the character’s good nature and innate decency. I must say, we were all a little concerned at the beginning because Miss Burt hit quite a few bum notes in the first ten minutes and I wondered if she was suffering with a virus; however, as the show warmed up, so did she and in the end she gave a beautiful vocal performance.
The rest of the cast create a true ensemble, with different roles in both London and Paris. Claire Machin is particularly good as Violet Butterfield, Mrs Harris’ hot-headed friend who only wants the best for her even though she can’t always express it. Joanna Riding is an exquisitely refined Lady Dant and a beautifully flawed Madame Colbert, struggling with the status of her position in conflict with her natural warmth. Laura Pitt-Pulford is wonderful as the lovely Natasha in Paris and suitably irksome as the difficult Pamela. Louis Maskell receives the Best Wobbly Legs on Staircase Award for his brilliant performance as Fauvel, and there are also a series of enjoyable cameos from an otherwise underused Gary Wilmot. The rest of the cast all give sterling support and high-quality performances.
I’m not sure what my expectations were of this show – but I feel that they were exceeded. In the simplest terms, it’s just all very lovely, very sweet, and very heart-warming. You’ll leave the theatre with a love for your fellow man that you might not have noticed on your way in. It’s on until Saturday 29th, but I wouldn’t be remotely surprised to discover it appearing on some other stage in the not too distant future.
Production photos by Johan Persson