There is always something of a worry when a favourite literary work is adapted for the stage that the thing made it magic in the first place is lost. When this adaptation is a musical one, the risks are even higher. It’s not as if we haven’t seen a beautiful book dissected and carelessly reassembled, with subtle narrative moments forced into clunky rhymes and a song-scene-song-scene pattern.
Thankfully Richard Taylor and Rachel Wagstaff‘s musical adaptation of Paul Gallico’s gentle and charming story of a kind-hearted London charwoman treads lightly and carefully to ensure that soufflé–like delicacy is not trampled upon. Flowers For Mrs Harris is a remarkably tender, thoughtful musical. Rather than big numbers marking the emotional pinch points, singing is used to develop character in the most granular, organic way.
The story is a deceptively simple one. Widowed Mrs Harris, a hard-working Battersea charwoman sees a beautiful Dior dress at the home of Lady Dant, a rich lady whose house she is cleaning. It’s the most beautiful thing she has ever laid eyes upon. It casts such a spell over her that she decides that she must go to the House of Dior in Paris and purchase one of those dresses.
The simplicity of the story is the invisible thread which ties transformative stories into mythical fables. Flowers is of the same cloth as The Wizard of Oz. Both have heroines with an unspoken yearning, who need to travel beyond their environs to see what they were looking for was at home all the time. There’s also more than a dash of Mary Poppins about Ada Harris. Whether tidying her clients houses and bringing order to their lives or utterly altering the Paris world in which she finds herself, there’s that same magic of an outsider and a domestic being the catalyst for needed change.
Given the “ordinariness” of the main character, it would seem strange for her to burst into song as most musicals would require her to do. Instead Taylor and Wagstaff blend dialogue with lyrics. This almost recitative approach lends an authenticity to naturally humble characters beginning to sing and express themselves. There are even moments reminiscent of Benjamin Britten where the melodies drift between tonal and atonal, reflecting the seeming eternal optimism of Ada and the underlying ache. While Flowers is not a musical you’ll leave singing the songs, Rain on Me packs an emotional heft you won’t see coming.
There is an argument to be made that for such a slight story, the running time is excessive. In the first act, when Ada has to scrimp and save over a two and a half year period, there is little jeopardy. If Ada was denied the opportunity to go to Paris, it wouldn’t be Just Stop Oil invading a London stage this week. But as they say in the world of dressmaking: never mind the length, feel the quality!
And this production exudes quality. Since her extraordinary performance as Dot in the 2006 production of Sunday In The Park With George, Jenna Russell has become such a shining light of British musical theatre. As Ada Harris, she is simply flawless. Rarely off stage, she is the irresistible beat of a show that is all heart. She has such an ability to find the emotional gold in the tiniest moments. Whether doing musical maths following the win on the pools or folding shirts properly, she imbues her character with such detail, she lends weight to Ada’s hopes and dreams. Even with the challenging vocal range of what she sings, through her quite breathtaking control of pauses and placing of lyrics, Russell effortlessly raises the emotional ante and makes us care about Mrs Harris.
The excellence extends to the supporting cast. The always-sensational Kelly Price shines both as the ostentatious Lady Dant in London and the underappreciated Madame Colbert in Paris. Her performance is full of delightful touches, highs and lows, even within relatively limited character sketches. Annie Wensak brings superb comic timing to the role of Violet Butterfield, Ada’s glass-half-empty, next-door neighbour and best friend. The cast does not have a single weak link.
Riverside Studios 2 can be quite a problematic space for stage design, offering width but not depth. Nik Corrall‘s evocative set works miracles. A blur of doors, shutters and cloths, it allows Mrs Harris to roam from location to location in the blink of an eye. A washing line of towels evoke the skyline of a cityscape but rendered by Ada’s view of the world. A satisfying feel of fabric and texture, busy but never fussy, his set fills the space with muted hues of the 1947 to 1949 period in which Flowers is set. Most importantly, it never upstages The Dress. Costume designer Sara Perks manages a suitably impressive fashion show in the second Act, making a decent fist of the newly-founded House of Dior couture and certainly creates the necessary wow moment with “The Rose” to convince that is the dress that that Ada falls in love with.
Ultimately the show soars because of Jenna Russell’s heart-felt performance. Because of the candour with which she stitches her character’s hopes and dreams, when she falls out with her best friend, it matters. When Nathanael who she cleans for can no longer pay her as he is following his dream as a photographer, but she continues to work for him anyway – it matters. When she thanks the never-appreciated Madame Rambaud, Dior’s head seamstress – it matters. Flowers For Mrs Harris is the perfect antidote to how grim the world can feel. This sophisticated, intelligent production offers an uplifting message that goodness, decency and generosity will find its own reward.
Flowers For Mrs Harris is blooming lovely. A ★★★★★ 5-star joy!