Making its London debut, Flowers for Mrs Harris has already had runs in both Sheffield and Chichester, and returns the titular charlady, Ada Harris, to within a stones throw of where the musical is set. It’s based on Paul Gallico’s novel, Mrs ‘Arris Goes to Paris, though audiences may be more familiar with the made-for-tv movie adaptation starring Angela Lansbury, or the recent remake with Lesley Manville.
Directed by Bronagh Lagan, the musical is set initially in post-war Battersea. Ada has survived two wars, and in a city that is still downtrodden, bleak and faced with rationing, Ada is more than happy with her lot. Committed to a life of service she spends her spare time sewing or enjoying an occasional milk stout with her best pal Violet.
It’s all pretty stereotypical, the image of a cheery cockney, content with a life of serfdom, who remains kind and optimistic despite being widowed in the Great War. When Ada discovers a couture gown in the wardrobe of Lady Dant (Kelly Price) she decides that this colourful thing of beauty is exactly what she needs to brighten her days.
Ada, sets out on a mission to save enough money to go to Paris and buy herself a Dior dress. It seems ridiculous to everyone but her, especially Violet (Annie Wensak) who takes offence that Ada is turning her back on their simple life together.
The first act, which does move quite slowly, covers the several years it takes Ada to save up the money; working more hours and giving up her beloved milk stout. It’s the post-war equivalent of cancelling Netflix to save up for a deposit for a house, but with disbelief suspended we’re drawn into Ada’s dream because such a good job is made of establishing the characters.
That first act sews the seeds, but it’s in the second act that Flowers for Mrs Harris really blossoms. Ada arrives in Paris and initially faces prejudice and disdain for even considering that she might deserve to own such an exquisite piece of clothing. But Ada’s kindness and generosity, along with a few happy coincidences mean that the friends she meets in Paris come to love her as much as we do.
Richard Taylor’s score is enjoyable, if a little forgettable. It is really about driving the plot, with sections presented as sung through, but that does mean we miss out on any big numbers to really hang on to. ‘Rain on Me’ in act one is an exception and the audience does lap it up.
Nik Corrall’s set design captures war torn London, with a look that is both shabby and claustrophobic, yet it still manages to work when the action relocates to Paris and serves as a reminder that despite these brief few days in the fashion capital of the world, it’s a life of servitude in London that awaits Mrs Harris. Sara Perk’s costumes (with original design by Lez Brotherston) do a good job of recreating couture, and the expectations are high due to the way the musical teases their appearance, the fashion show scene perfectly showcases Perk’s designs, while creating the sense of wonderment felt by Mrs Harris.
The cast is led beautifully by Jenna Russell, and it really is perfect casting. Russell’s charm lends itself to Ada’s innate sense of doing good and helping everyone around her, no matter how badly they treat her.
The rest of the cast take on dual roles, one in London, the other in France. Ada’s husband Albert (Hal Fowler), who appears in memories, becomes a wealthy investor, while her client, the countess (Pippa Winslow) becomes the House of Dior seamstress.
It helps to show parallels between Ada’s dreams and the reality, no more so than with her London clients Pamela and Bob (Charlotte Kennedy and Nathanael Campbell) who harbour feelings for each other, the same then becomes true for their French counterparts, and of course Ada is on hand to encourage the relationship along.
There are probably deeper messages at the stem of this touching musical; the idea that the only way the working class can achieve their dreams is to work even harder should open up some debate. But that’s not really what Flowers for Mrs Harris seeks to do. Instead, it presents a kind and hard working woman, and asks us to root for her, and we absolutely do.
It takes its time getting there, but the investment pays off for the audience when Flowers for Mrs Harris eventually reaches its touching and heartwarming climax. This is a blooming good musical that celebrates the goodness in people and gives us all a little hope that dreams can come true…if we’re prepared to put the effort in.