Chichester Festival Theatre – until 29 September 2018
A gulf yawns between this musical’s two halves: a gulf of wealth, sophistication, hope and colour. Ida Harris, careworn heroine of Paul Gallico’s novella, is a widowed charwoman in 1950s London. A tired place and life: before a smoky panorama of Battersea Power Station and weary grey houses her life is of picking up in richer flats and houses, stepping in sometimes to “oblige” for the clients of her neighbour Violet.
Doing this for Lady Dant, who awaits Princess Elizabeth to tea, Ida undergoes a shock of beauty. A Dior dress in Madam’s wardrobe: the New Look, loveliest flowering of postwar extravagance and the age of Cecil Beaton (the most famous of his photographs will be beautifully re-created before us later on). Ida sees the vision Dior called “a return to civilised happiness”, full-skirted and shimmering, desirable, perfect in execution.
We don’t see it. Not yet. In Daniel Evans’ elegant, heartfelt production, fine-tuned since it ravished our hearts at Sheffield, we only see the shabby figure of Clare Burt transfixed, kneeling in a great warm light. “It’s like somehow I just found a piece of me.” The sense of that hunger for beauty and perfection is shudderingly powerful. A widow of Passchendaele, three decades a drudge who consoles herself secretly by talking to her dead husband, she yearns towards the absurd, the impossible ideal.
That new longing even briefly fractures her friendship with Violet, who cannot understand. Ida saves and scrimps and struggles month after month, suffers hungry self-deprivation and hoards a tiny Pools win, all in the naive belief that she can buy one off the peg in Paris. Where she goes for the glorious second half.
Rachel Wagstaff’s book deftly amplifies the novella, wisely removing Gallico’s rather embarrassing patronage of Ida’s “twinkly” Cockney ways, and gives a stronger sense that she is not only starved of beauty but stoically frozen in her old grief. Richard Taylor’s music and lyrics are intense and skilful and (in the cleaning sequences, with a witty use of the revolve) they are playful; but it’s a bit hard going at first. Light female voices compete too weakly with a ten-piece band below, in a bit too much operatic sung-through dialogue. But psychologically, perhaps we need to be a bit impatient. Because Paris is to come.
There, with nice crossovers, the London cast become Parisians. Lady Dant (Joanna Riding) is haughty Madame Colbert at Dior, who softens towards Ida; Laura Pitt-Pulford’s selfish Pamela plays Natasha, the feted mannequin who dreams of ordinariness, and London’s gauche lovesick accountant on Ida’s cleaning round is an equally awkward accountant at Dior. She solves all their problems. Mark Meadows, her lost husband’s imagined ghost, becomes a silver-fox of a Marquis who also takes to her.
They all do. Shabbiness and simplicity are no impediment to almost instant connection. That is the fairytale, the hope. Seeing it in Sheffield, I observed that one line was an echo from the idealistic founding days of the Arts Council: “If something is beautiful, it’s beautiful for anyone, no matter who you are” . But alongside the idea of a humble woman drawn out of her world by beauty runs an even more powerful dream: that a joyful response (Burt is luminous, astonishing) will draw grateful, comradely recognition from the makers and guardians of high art. It should. It doesn’t always.
The parade of dresses is spectacular, and had us all gasping and yearning (Lez Brotherston’s designs breathtakingly re-create Dior and the nine models are perfect in gesture , period and impossible tiny waists). But more arresting and touching is the intensity of the dressmakers, measuring and reeling and ruffling and hissing in professional perfectionism, offering to “sew all night” so that Ida can take her treasure away. Haltingly, the senior seamstress explains that they have seen too many bored and jaded faces at the collections (think of all those Anna Wintour types, in shades..). The workroom experts, artists, craftswomen, are simply grateful for the innocent light in Ida’s eyes. That’s when the tear rises in yours.
box office cft.org.uk to 29 Sept