Chichester Festival Theatre – until 29 September 2018
My mum and dad did the football pools their whole life – and Spot The Ball which seemed to go hand-in-hand – and they never won a bean. But then they didn’t have Ada Harris’ beginner’s luck or her scriptwriter.
Flowers For Mrs Harris, a 2016 Sheffield hit for director Daniel Evans when he was there, is the big musical flourish for Chichester Festival Theatre, where Evans is now completing his second year as artistic director. It’s an utterly charming, slightly schmaltzy, wonderfully uplifting tale about London char, Ada, who sets her sights on the impossible and moves heaven and earth to achieve it.
As a fairy story about chasing your dreams and transformative power of optimism, it is unparalleled even if it is a little fantastical. And there’s a moral in there for today’s generation which craves instant gratification and reward without the hassle of working for it.
Flowers For Mrs.Harris is set just after World War Two when the only way to reach any goals in life was to work your fingers to the bone. Ada Harris, fifty-something, Battersea born and bred, talks to her dead husband and has her next-door-neighbour, fellow skivvy and widow, Violet Butterfield, for company. It’s a cold, colourless and austere world, where the leccy regularly goes off and rationing still limits spending to the bare essentials.
Further, lower working class women on their own, who know their place in life (somewhere at the bottom of the heap), must juggle jobs just to make ends meet. It’s no bed of roses but “a life without flowers isn’t any life at all”, Ada and her hubby say, and her only indulgence is the odd tatty bouquet, brought back to life with a penny in the vase.
One day Ada does for one of Vi’s clients, the very posh Lady Dant, and she is mesmerised by the socialite’s Christian Dior dress.
“I have to have one!” she declares (as we all do). So she sets about doing even more jobs, cutting household expenditure, living frugally and saving furiously.
Throughout this whimsical musical the industrious, saintly Ada brings light and comfort to her clients, a diverse bunch which includes a neurotic aspiring actress (Laura Pitt-Pulford) and a depressed, despondent old soldier (Gary Wilmot, scandalously wasted in a series of cameo roles).
There are also the anxious, frustrated and love-struck accountant Bob (Louis Maskell) and a grand old Russian emigrée forced to become an antiques dealer to survive.
Clare Burt reprises her role as the honest Ada and she’s captivating.
It’s a beguiling and honest performance that captures a whole breed of post-war resilient and determined women who made new lives for themselves with imagination and a lot of industry.
This is one of those shows where the audience is overcome with its cheesiness and leaves, either having a little sob (there was a huge collective gasp from everybody during one key scene on opening night) or with a daft smile on their faces.
Paul Gallico’s budding Cinderella tale has blossomed into a riot of colour at the hands of book adaptor Rachel Wagstaff and composer Richard Taylor.
The post-interval second act has some spectacular moments but none more so when we’re treated to a fashion show at the House of Dior.
Okay, men in the audience may drift off for a few minutes, but I was entranced.
Designer Lez Brotherston has excelled himself, recreating one of the most iconic fashion moments in history. Forget Ada’s yearning for one frock, I wanted to have them all.
It’s hard to ignore Claire Machin’s fabulous turn as best friend Violet because she does her level best to steal the show in every scene she’s in.
The wonderful inflection in her lyrical voice and some wonderfully well-observed dialogue, results in an outstanding performance in the comedy sidekick role. I loved her.
“Let’s get you that frock!” she tells Ada on this moving, heartfelt production.
Daniel Evans does a great job directing (of course he does) but I did think that the musical would have been better served on Chichester’s smaller, more intimate, Minerva Theatre stage.
It’s undoubtedly a major show, and it deserves a big stage, but there is a very small cast and very little set. At times the cast looked lost, in a sea of grey emptiness, in the vast Festival Theatre that featured a revolve that spun so quickly that some of the ensemble had to almost break into a trot.
Gary Wilmot, making his debut in Chichester, is an experienced West End veteran, yet here he’s given four very minor roles, which he does brilliantly, but he is sorely underused.
Joanna Riding’s cut glass accent as Lady Dant could slice through crystal. She excels as the Mayfair Grande Dame.
And Louis Maskell’s performance as the gauche Dior bookkeeper, in love with a top model (Pitt-Pulford again), is endearing.
A roller-coaster of emotions watching this but there’s no doubt that the six years of workshops and rewrites has been worthwhile. Flowers For Mrs Harris is blooming magical.
Flowers For Mrs Harris runs in the Festival Theatre until September 29.
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