Review – Flowers for Mrs Harris, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 22nd September 2018

Flowers for Mrs HarrisI 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.

FFMH1Now 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.

FFMH3London, 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; FFMH2and 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?

FFMH9The 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.

FFMH4Sentimental? 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.

FFMH8As 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?

FFMH5At 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.

FFMH6The 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.

FFMH7I’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

Review – Stephen Ward, Aldwych Theatre, 8th February 2014

Stephen WardHow much do you know about the Profumo affair? If you’re like us, then probably not that much. The name’s familiar – as are those of Christine Keeler, Mandy Rice-Davies, and, when it all came to trial, the judge was the esteemed Lord Denning. But Yevgeny Ivanov? Lucky Gordon? Stephen Ward? No, you’d have beaten me there, those names would have meant nothing until we’d seen Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new musical about the eponymous osteopath, who massaged the backs of the great and painful and found himself buoyant in the sea of early 1960s London celebrity.

Charlotte SpencerOne of the main criticisms I’d heard about it in advance was that, although it was a perfectly good show, who could possibly be its target market? Surely only the (relatively) elderly would remember those days and be interested in reliving those scandalous times? Well, judging from the age bracket of those attending last Saturday’s matinee (and bearing in mind that it was indeed a matinee, which may skew the demographic) then maybe so. However, that’s a real shame. It’s a timeless story – and if it were fiction, we’d be lapping it up. Sex, political scandals, celebrity and espionage – what’s not to love? And, of course, the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber. I’ve not seen all his shows, by a long chalk, but for the most part I find them pretty enjoyable. Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Phantom are all amazing. Joseph, Starlight and Aspects are all very good. Sunset – ok, Cats – a bit boring; not seen the others. But if musicals were football teams (and I accept that they’re not) I’d certainly put this show up there at the top of the Championship, looking for possible promotion to the Premiership.

Charlotte BlackledgeI was really impressed with the story-telling aspect of the show. It’s a very well-paced, momentum-building book, and, by the time you get to the second act, it becomes the stage version of a real page-turner. The lyrics are not drowned out by the music (Rent in Concert take note) so you can hear all the words as clear as a bell. That’s not to say the orchestra don’t give it their all, because they do – it’s a really great performance by them, and Lloyd Webber has come up with some terrific tunes as usual – just that it all comes across as beautifully balanced in your eardrums. Structurally or technically, the only thing I thought could have been improved is the Act One climax – Johnny from the club arriving at Stephen’s flat with a gun and not afraid to shoot it; I guess it was meant to be an exciting moment to take you buzzing into the interval, but actually I thought it was a damp squib that needed much more oomph.

Anthony CalfThere’s obviously absolutely no doubt in ALW’s mind that Stephen Ward was framed. With worthies like Profumo, Astor and Rachman surrounding him, Ward was a comparative no-mark, who, with the benefit of hindsight, was always going to be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. There’s a scene in the show where the Home Secretary and his cronies brainstorm on what trumped-up charge they will get the police to fabricate, nicely giving a new meaning to Stephen Ward’s “Manipulation” song from earlier. This develops into the brilliant “Police Interview”, where the impetus to incriminate Ward in any way they can, is blatantly, ruthlessly and unsettlingly hilariously portrayed. All this, and a superb scene with News of the World journalists (whatever became of that responsible and newsworthy organ?) where they encourage Christine to “give us something juicy” – the plot may be in the 1960s but the subject matter is as relevant today as ever.

Joanna RidingAlexander Hanson is fantastic as Ward; this is the first time we’ve seen him since his excellent Captain von Trapp in the Palladium’s Sound of Music a few years ago. Manipulative, but manipulable too; attracted to the ladies in a determined, confident way; displaying an air of quiet authority that ends up being just a little too quiet to save himself. And musically, he’s great; an outstanding, rich, clear voice and an interpretation of Don Black’s lyrics that make you feel really sorry for him. The bizarre thing is that, of all the people in the show, Ward is the one who has really done nothing wrong; just having a taste for the highlife and a liking for a varied array of ladies – there’s nothing illegal about that.

Alexander HansonCharlotte Spencer gives a great performance as Christine Keeler, the very young dancer at Murray’s Cabaret Club – I’m sure I remember adverts for that club in Palladium theatre programmes from the 60s and 70s – who catches Ward’s eye and doesn’t resist his advances, but with whom, for whatever reason, he apparently doesn’t actually have a relationship – he just installs her in his flat. She’s an excellent singer, looks great, and over the course of the show develops from rough-edged teenager to a more sophisticated, and much more experienced, woman. Charlotte Blackledge’s Mandy Rice-Davies is a more outgoing, back-chatty girl, full of fun and cheek and it’s no surprise Rachman would have shown an interest in her; or indeed, Ward. Interestingly, the real Mandy Rice-Davies apparently advised during the creative process of the show, which lends the plot additional veracity.

Ian ConninghamThere’s also a brilliant turn by Joanna Riding as Valerie Hobson (Lady Profumo) standing by her man in best Tammy Wynette fashion, both when she thinks he has been falsely accused of having an affair with Christine Keeler, and when she knows it is true. Profumo must have been one of the luckiest men alive to have a high profile affair like that and suffer the vengeance of his wife for no more than about thirty seconds. Miss Riding’s performance of “I’m Hopeless when it comes to you” is probably the musical highlight of the show. Anthony Calf, who can always be relied upon to provide great support in any cast, is a very chummy and friendly Lord Astor, so that the scene where he distances himself from Ward because the heat is on, has a much greater impact and you realise what a cowardly toe-rag Astor is. And I really loved the double act of Ian Conningham and Christopher Howell as the two bent coppers intimidating their way through their interrogations. But the whole cast is excellent, and the big set pieces like the rather posh orgy and the courtroom scene work extremely well.

Christopher HowellAt the end of the day it’s Stephen Ward’s story, his good times and his tragic ending; the show completely revolves around him and ends as it begins with his bizarrely featuring in the Chamber of Horrors at Blackpool. Alexander Hanson gives the stand-out performance required for this heavy role. Pre-show warnings advise that it’s not for the easily offended; to be honest I think you’d have to be very easily offended indeed to get upset by its content. It’s an excellent show and I would really recommend it!