REVIEW: FLOWERS FOR MRS HARRIS (Chichester Festival Theatre) ★★★★

After a 2016 run at the Sheffield Crucible, Daniel Evans brings his acclaimed production of Flowers For Mrs Harris to the Chichester Festival Theatre, where he has recently become Artistic Director.

The show follows Ada Harris, played in both Sheffield and Chichester by Clare Burt, a cleaning lady in post war England who, after stumbling upon a clients brand new Christian Dior dress, embarks on a journey to buy a Dior dress of her own.

The production here is brilliantly handled by Daniel Evans, who makes a revolve and simplistic set go a long way. That’s not to take anything away from Colin Falconer’s designs; it’s necessary for them to be more practical than dramatic, a similar feature to Mrs Harris herself. What Evans allows in this minimalistic staging is for the characters to take centre stage.

Based on the novel by Paul Gallico, Rachel Wagstaff has created personas for stage that are rich, complex and recognisable and along with Richard Taylor’s music and lyrics, has formed a contemporary British musical that feels like a classic. Taylor’s score is undeniably influenced by the likes of Sondheim and Kander & Ebb, but occasionally feels slightly too irate and compact, struggling to fully blossom in some of the more delicate moments.

During the interval, I felt annoyed by the characters on stage. I was confused as to why Mrs Harris surrounded herself with such awful people, but Act II relieves that tension, introducing a world of personalities who are, much like Mrs Harris, caring and compassionate, the tonic to Act 1’s irritations. Clare Burt brings a heartwarming strength to Mrs Harris, who fights her way to where she wants to get without ever harming anyone, often enhancing them on her way. She is tired and downtrodden but Burt is able to balance the sensitivity of Ada, with the strength and determination needed to get her through the journey. The fragility she brings to her musical numbers, particularly in ‘Rain On Me’ is heartbreaking.

The entire cast brilliantly transform themselves in the second act, most of them bringing an accomplished French language, a touch brilliantly incorporated into the show. Of course they speak French – they are in France. Louis Maskell has a brilliant, loveable turn in Act II as André Fauvel and the small company all have their moments to shine. Mark Meadows supportive Mr Harris who guides Ada throughout her travels, Laura Pitt-Pulford’s endearing Natasha and Joanna Riding’s stern but soft at heart Madame Colbert being real standouts. The “models’ as they are described, seem to have pulled the short straw and only appear for a few minutes, albeit very gracefully in Act II. They could have been used in Act 1, adding to the hectic world of London Mrs Harris works in, but their glorious gowns by Irene Bohan are a highlight of the evening.

This production, especially it’s closing scene when Mrs Harris returns to London, is truly something special. Led by the ever brilliant Burt, and filled with intricate characters and an undeniably emotional and universal book, it deserves another life after this short run in Chichester. Likely London, possibly New York? Maybe Ada Harris could be off to Paris after all?

Reviewed by Oliver Williams
Photo: Johan Persson


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