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Fringe Online 2020

Flowers for Mrs Harris

Chichester Festival Theatre and Sheffield Theatre

Genre: Family, Fringe Online Theatre, Mainstream Theatre, Musical Theatre, Online Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre Online

Festival: ,

Low Down

Based on the novel by Paul Gallico, with Book by Rachel Wagstaff , Music and Lyrics by Richard Taylor Directed by Daniel Evans, designed by Liz Brotherton. Lighting Designer Mark Henderson, Sound Designer Mike Walker, Movement Director Naomi Said  Tom Brady’s Musical Supervisor and Director- the orchestrator’s Richard Taylor too.
Casting Director Charlotte Sutton CDG.

Conductor Tom Brady, Piano Jon Laird, Violin Kathryn James, Double Bass Nicki Davenport, Harp Vicky Lester, Flute Abigail Burrows, Clarinet/Tenor Saxophone Rhys Taylor, French Horn Laura Llewellyn-Jones, Cornet Owain Harries, Trombone Jane Salmon, Percussion James Turner. Till May 8th.


‘Nobody wins a war’ says Ada Harris to her neighbour on the day of her 31st wedding anniversary, deputizing for her friend Violet, since she’s always dusting. So cleaning for Lady Dant Ada finds her battle. Like the war it lies in France, more precisely Paris: now the glittering ration-free Marshall Plan home of chic again. It’s a Christian Dior dress Dant’s casually bought.

Based on the novel by Paul Gallico, with a book by Rachel Wagstaff , music and lyrics by Richard Taylor this enchanting musical is the most heart-warming of recent years.

Chichester Festival are live-streaming their acclaimed production of Flowers for Mrs Harris, originally staged at Sheffield, free till May 8th. It’s wonderful Chichester’s joined live-streaming solidarity; it’s not their first venture. They’ve live-streamed into local hospitals, using their facility with true community spirit.

Clare Burt takes the title role of Ada Harris; she’s rarely offstage with a soaring lyricism edged with south London starting with the up-beat duet ‘All we ever needed’.

Claire Machin’s her critical-supportive friend Violet. Joanna Riding the fantasizing Lady Dant (Princess Elizabeth and Marilyn Monroe drop in) whose dress sets Mrs Harris off, so to speak, with her ‘It’s a work of art… something not real, made to make you feel… I have to have one!’ The dress itself’s a clever platonic thing in a spotlight cone. Mark Meadow’s the 100% supportive Mr Harris, whose obsession with the pools is his excuse for propelling hers. Though there’s a twist. And after a shared win, Ada’s part-way there. Not without a two-and-a-half year struggle with setbacks, gone in a swirl thanks to Naomi Said’s movement direction.

Directed by Daniel Evans with a sure sense of lyric pause and zippy panache, it’s designed by Liz Brotherton with a sweep of often empty stage (a cobble-pattern on the stage revolve the one constant) back-dropped with occasional serrations – Battersea gasworks, Paris skylines. Superbly blue-grey for its first half the set slowly explodes in a tonal riot. Paris brightens with an imposing Dior staircase.

Lit by Mark Henderson the first half’s suffused in the blue-violets of distance and enchantment. Stronger effects bathe Paris in chiaroscuro to go with Dior chairs and whispering dresses. Sound design by Mike Walker brings up the orchestra’s clarity and punch, occasionally overwhelming on screen.

This musical’s a heart-on-sleeve fantasy whose whimsy (never quite schmaltz) is as gossamer-thin as a Dior dress. Too-obvious metaphors about how this is miraculously stitched by Taylor in particular doesn’t detract from its nugget of transcendence. Gallico’s improbable story needs and deserves this adaptation: only something all-singing, all-dancing could float it and it does, gloriously.

En route we see Ada irradiating others, persuading them to their dreams with a spiritual Spitfire-octane. Louis Maskell’s  Bob the accountant as a photographer; Gary Wilmot’s a dyspepsic old major cajoled back to life and company; Ada gives Laura Pitt-Pulford’s despairing poor-me actress  Pamela backbone for auditions. Nicola Sloane’s  the kindly heavily-exilic Countess, given encouragement.

All repay her, invest obliquely in her dream, from passport photo to coupons. Touchingly Ada doesn’t believe her true intent will convince: the major’s given a fluttery fib of a niece ‘wanting the chance to dance’, Ada secures an air ticket from that new airport Heathrow. Fibs harm no-one, but Ada can’t lie, a plot-point.

There aren’t absolute stand-out melodies, but an overall feel of garnets in post-war mud as recit grey moves to heart-stopping aria. There’s lovely half-number ripples ‘Dig Deep Mrs Harris’ and with such lyrics as ‘shirt by shirt’ we dimly recall other lyrics, other musicals. But like Sondheim, Taylor’s music and orchestration consists of mostly through-composed numbers morphing from one to the other, orchestration rather than melodic content defining them. Taylor sounds like no-one else here; designer drabness is never dull.

Machin’s now a French char. Riding’s reincarnation is an initially hostile Dior show-and-client manager Madame Colbert, their mutual would-be-nemeses Wilmot’s officious Dior manager Monsieur Armande (he takes other harrumph parts), and snobby American Sybil Sullivan (Sloane again). Meadows reappears as the egalitarian Marquis rescuing Ada and Colbert from Sullivan’s wrath, with an elegant bonding on how to grow roses. Maskell returns as another initially officious type, Andre.

When Pitt-Pulford reappears as the warmly appreciative model Natasha Mrs Harris realizes Andre’s keen on her and they form a trio centring the second act. Maskell’s ‘And she kissed me’ is the most exuberant second-half number, with brilliant orchestral writing in the winds (very French). Pitt-Pulford’s solo contrasts, plangent with her frantic photo-fit life matching Andre in a photo-finish in ‘Chocolate Cake’. Helps Natasha likes a spot of cleaning. And cake. Rhona McGregor ‘s the impoverished  Flower Girl in both capitals and miracle-seaming Dressmaker.

There’s fine ensemble support from Ella Bassett-Jull, Skye Broughton, Lydia Hague, Ella Jarman, Emily McAlpine, Charlotte Schofield, Freya Shepherd-Bland, Evie Shiner modelling dresses.

All the main cast are superb, those solo moments above the most catching. Beyond is Burt, mingling yarns of victories shadowed in calamity with fortitude and great heart. Burt will prove definitive, her range inflected with evanescent joys, shimmering before they’re lost in some palpable serge.

This musical never lets up. You might guess it should pull a tear or three. A must-see.