Sheffield Crucible – until 4 June 2016
A HEART FOR BEAUTY, A ‘FIFTIES DREAM
If Daniel Evans means to leave his acclaimed stewardship of Sheffield Theatre on a flood of tears, he’s chosen the right production for his directorial finale. There were definitely Kleenexes involved. Paul Gallico’s novella was an outlet for a bruised postwar nation, yearning over its clothes-ration coupons for the “ideal of civilized happiness” epitomized by the extravagant ballgowns of the New Look. A widowed charlady is content with her humble lot until she sees, in a rich client’s wardrobe, the marvel that is a Dior dress. She yearns to own one – “to come home to, not to wear”. Inspired by a small pools win, she trebles it with years of slaving, scrimping and squirrelling, and travels naive but determined to Paris.
Where – like the poor-but-honest heroine of a fairytale – she wins all hearts, comforts the also-widowed vendeuse and solves a brittle romantic impasse (fairytale again: top model and shy accountant = Princess and swineherd). Having known the book in childhood I feared a saccharine tone in this premiere from Richard Taylor (music and lyrics) and Rachel Wagstaff. Gallico is an unfashionably brutal plucker of heartstrings, and his “Mrs ‘Arris” sequels are best avoided. Evans, however, steers a canny course: the most notable evidence of this being that Gallico’s Battersea char heroine is patronizingly given heavy Cockney ‘aitches and a “naughty twinkle” in her plebeian eye.
Whereas Clare Burt, in this production, emanates credible dignity and palpable sense as well as her yearning. Roll on a few years and she would be one of the ‘60s working-class heroines leading council revolts in sink estates. Her Passchendaele widowhood hits home, touchingly evoked in conversations with the dead husband, who wanders around as a ghost advising her on her pools boxes. And comedy is never far off; Anna-Jane Casey is a right caution as her friend Violet, and so is the revolving ring of demanding clients: naughty major, eccentric Russian emigrée, selfish soubrette, accountant dreaming of being a photographer.
There’s a lively energy from the start: the score, never particularly interesting or catchy, gives point and vigour to patter lyrics (some of which I would have liked to hear better). The scrimping has unnerving pathos: who, today, saves as the ‘50s women did? And there is a moment of real truthful seriousness when Ida Harris sees the client’s (invisible) Dior dress , alone under a spotlight, confronting high art with “It’s like I’ve found a piece of me”. Burt evokes a hunger for beauty which throbs across the still-grey stage, and shines on from beneath her threadbare cardigan even when she gets to snooty, incomprehensible, unwelcoming Paris. So before long even they must speak democracy: “If something is beautiful, it’s beautiful for anyone, no matter who you are”. A proper echo from the founding days of the Arts Council…
Paris is a riot: rose-pink and dramatic, with a dazzling procession of eight Dior New Look dresses: silk and tulle, petals upon petals, crystals on crystals, worn with hauteur by immaculate girls with tiny waists and proper hips. A dream of serene perfection, Lez Brotherston’s designs channel Dior beautifully and are ,I suspect, being eyed up gloatingly by every female on the crew. Mark Meadows is a glorious Chevalier-esque Marquis, naturally doubling as the husband’s earlier ghost; Laura Pitt-Pulford transforms from the ghastly soubrette to an enchanting Parisienne model , with Louis Maskell geekishly adoring as André. And – no spoilers for non-readers – the dénouement is seriously floral.
So me, I loved it. And note that it needs a good provincial producing-theatre to have the nerve to do this with so much style: a middle-aged charlady heroine in a brown cardi and faded print, a story dominated by women, an untried musical of an unfashionable ‘50s book, and no megastars… But it works. I have the soggy Kleenex to prove it.
box office 0114 249 6000 to 4 June