The Streaming Experience: Chichester Festival Theatre’s Flowers for Mrs. Harris
Flowers for Mrs. Harris is a new musical that was first produced at Sheffield Theatres in 2017 then revived in 2018 at the Chichester Festival Theatre where this recording was made by The Other Richard (click here to watch for free until May 8th, and don’t forget to donate here if you can, all theatre needs your help). It lovingly enters our streaming atmosphere just in the nick of time, giving us something new to embrace, even if it doesn’t blow us away entirely. It’s a tender and sweet story, one that won’t alter or challenge your view of musical theatre, nor will it expand that horizon, but it will lovingly fly you away from all the stress of your world, and that, I would say, is a flight of fancy that feels more and more necessary as we self-isolate ourselves away from this nasty and deadly virus.
Set just after the Second World War, with a Battersea silhouette perfectly framing the heart-warming scene set out before us, the simple yet sweet-natured cleaning lady, Ada Harris, played solidly by the earthy Clare Burt (Grizabella in West End’s Cats) shares a lovely engaging moment with her kind husband, Albert, played perfectly by Mark Meadows. They have tea and lovingly discuss flowers, the value of a penny, and the ultimate meaning of love and personal satisfaction. “All I ever needed is here, right here” the 53-year old woman says, but we also can’t ignore the subtle tinge of mourning that seems attached to her heart. With rationing and bomb sites still very much a part of everyday life, it becomes clear that Albert did not make it back from the war, but Ada finds that she needs him there to fend off the disquieting emotions that are coming to the surface on, what appears to be, their wedding anniversary. She’s a strong focused positive-minded soul, especially in the hands of the fine Burt, and it is in her inner strength that we find that tender engagement with her heart.
It’s the perfect picture of a working-class household in the mid-1940s, filled with love and a strong attachment, and it feels like it just popped up from the ground right and steady. That is until the power goes off, as it tends to do from time to time. Albert disappears into the darkness, only to be replaced by Ada’s good friend, fellow housekeeper, and confident, Violet, authentically portrayed by the wonderful Claire Machin. This is how Ada is surviving, The two need one another with a casual desperation, as much as they need routine and work. Times are tough for these two, and even though Albert has always urged her to take a holiday, to sell his old watch and treat herself to some happiness, she buckles down and uses work to satisfy her soul and give her inner peace.
Ada Harris spends her days dusting, darning, polishing and scrubbing. She using her warmth and resilience to provide care and cheer for the people that she works so lovingly for; a retired Major (Gary Wilmot) angry about corners and obstacles to his inner joy, a depressed accountant Bob (Louis Maskell) frustrated with his life choices, a neurotic, struggling actress Pamela (Laura Pitt-Pulford) who Bob is secretly and shyly in love with, and an older Russian Countess (Nicola Sloane) who wants to return home. They all desire, struggling to find meaning in these difficult times and in their complicated lives, but are too afraid or nervous to act. Round and round they hopelessly circle, and thanks to Lez Brotherston’s structurally smart revolving set design and Mark Henderson’s warm and detailed lighting, we feel their pain and desperation. Ada tries with all her heart to breathe hope and life into their souls with her positive outlook, as it is clear that this is something they need from the maternal Ada. But on this one particular day, something changes for the earthbound Ada, something that she never saw coming, and never would have believed was waiting for her around the type of corner that the Major is so distrustful of.
“If you hate the thing, change it“, and as directed by the endearing Daniel Evans, a stage actor who broke my heart when he starred in Menier/West End/Broadway’s Sunday in the Park with George, the colorful vision that alters Ada’s outlook and direction comes when she least expects it. She offers to help out Violet at the house of one of her upper-class clients, and little did she know what waited for her upstairs. Ada arrives and dives right in and works hard, as she always does, finding humanity in the woman’s distracted ramblings, and thoughtfulness in her own heart. But then it happens with little warning. Ada, for the first time in her well-structured simple life, comes face to face with something that sits most beautifully and firmly outside the simple pure existence she lovingly embraces, and she is dumbfounded. She stares, barely able to take it in. Hanging like a piece of art (“It is a piece of art“, she discovers), a ravishing Christian Dior dress, at first glance, sets her head spinning and her world flipping. Its beauty throws her off balance, enchanting her to such a level that she decides quite suddenly to alter her pathway forward. Even if no one in her life understands, and why should they, she can hardly understand it herself, as it is “foolish to the core“. But is it?
She finally gives in to Albert’s plea; to treat herself to something that gives her pleasure. So off she goes, on a hard-fought journey to get herself to Paris so she may purchase an evening gown of her own. It doesn’t make sense, to her or to Violet, but in her determined desperation, there is, sticking out like flowers in a vase, an inspiring nonsensical mission for something more than she ever dared to dream of. Something that is “made to make you feel a different way” about beauty and life. But how can a life made up of numerous ‘three shillings per hour’ slots ever deliver her the £450 it would cost to fulfill her Parisian dream? She has no other option than to find a way, so Ada, with the help of Violet, dive in relentlessly, working as only they know-how. And with a little bit of luck, they find their way. After 2½ years of sacrificial hard work and determination, Ada achieves her dream, boards a plane and is off to Paris on a day trip to purchase the dress that means much more to her than any dress could or ever would.
Capturing the kind humanity of the Paul Gallico novella on which it is based, the clever British production won three UK Theatre Awards: Best Design (Lez Brotherston), Best Performer in a Musical and Best Musical Production. With a smartly arranged book by Rachel Wagstaff (West End’s Birdsong) and the stirring score by Richard Taylor (West End’s The Go-Between), Flowers for Mrs. Harris lovingly finds echoes of Sondheim’s melodic complexities inside the natural interactions of Ada’s world, and all those that discover her kindness along the way. The music and lyrics float out the caring energy like a sweet floral scent carried on a gentle breeze. “Shirt by shirt, shawl by shawl” the songs keep ‘putting it together, inch by inch’. Burt’s Mrs. Harris is clearly the emotional and sentimental core, delivering the goods honestly and clearly, matched most engagingly by Meadows’ Albert and Machin’s brilliant Violet. It’s melodic and touching, and although it is nothing like an inspirational revelation, the kind gentleness that is its core is a testimony to Ada’s positive outlook and warm-hearted nature.
With BEA boarding steps rolled in, London swiftly becomes Paris, swapping one identifiable skyline for another. All is centered around an elegant staircase that has Ada excitedly descending into her dream state, the Dior store. Not surprisingly, she doesn’t quite get the welcome she imagined. It’s clear she doesn’t look the part, just ask the french cleaning lady (Claire Machin doing double duty) who doesn’t know quite what to make of her. and those in power arrogantly treating her with disdain and wishing she would just go away. But we also know Ada’s superpower, even if she doesn’t quite know it herself (and maybe that is part of it), and through her empathetic engagement and honesty, she finds the sentimental heart in all that, at first, had dismissed her.
Most of the well-tuned cast also play double duty in Paris, with very different, yet similar themed roles. Joanna Riding beautifully portrays a sophisticated ‘vendeuse’ with a warmer heart than anticipated, while Laura Pitt-Pulford, surprisingly also finds a somewhat more relatable and engaging role as a couture model missing chocolate cake and a simpler kinder life. Louis Maskell finds greater authenticity in a Dior account manager who awkwardly (and a bit over the top) loves the beautiful model from a charming distance, Gary Wilmot plays a pompous manager who doesn’t have a charitable heart anywhere to be found, and Mark Meadows miraculously transforms himself into a Marquis who is equally as captivated by Ada’s lovely and gentle nature as his London counterpart.
The couture dresses float in, descending down those elegant stairs with grace and beauty, much to Ada’s wide-eyed delight. The setting is different, but the lovely care delivered by Mrs. Harris remains the same, and the discomfort and heaviness of her newly made friends parallels what she has left behind in London. She manages to squeeze every moment of kindness out of every touching detail, as director Daniel Evans arranges with care the power within her gentle approach. Lives are altered by her kindness and attention, and she leaves beauty much greater than a Dior dress behind her at every turn and gesture. It’s a lovely arrangement to behold, and the message, although not very subtle, radiates a floral bouquet that is as simple as it is sweet.
Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris is the title of Paul Gallico’s 1958 novel that was published as Flowers for Mrs. Harris in the UK. It was the first in a series of four books about the adventures of a London charwoman who transforms the lives of everyone she meets. The ending of this amiable musical drips in gentle sweet sentimentality that never feels overly florid. Her achievement is as pure as Ada’s outlook, and although I didn’t understand or feel that the aspiring actress deserves Ada’s brand of kindness when she returns from Paris with the dress in hand, Mrs. Harris seems to know a thing or two more about kindness and love than I do. It’s a perfect little adventure to dive into on a self-isolating evening in Toronto. Chichester’s Flowers for Mrs. Harris didn’t whip up tears as the press quotes suggested it would, but it didn’t disappoint either. She deserves the flowers and all of the rewards she gets in the end, as do the others. I only hope Ada comes across my doorstep one day, I could use a good housecleaning and a dash of her loving care and attention. Especially during these days of wild uncertainty.