Flowers for Mrs Harris | Live Show Review

Cheryl Markosky
Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Flowers for Mrs Harris deserves all the bouquets bestowed upon it

Hal Fowler (left) and Jenna Russell (right) (photo: Pamela Raith)
Hal Fowler (left) and Jenna Russell (right) (photo: Pamela Raith)

A sweet scent of old-fashioned charm infuses Flowers for Mrs Harris, based on Paul Gallico’s 1958 novel, in its first London run at Riverside Studios. Debuting in Sheffield back in 2016, Richard Taylor and Rachel Wagstaff’s musical was then performed at Chichester Festival Theatre two years later. And in 2022, audiences were enchanted by the (non-musical) film Mrs Harris Goes to Paris, starring Lesley Manville, Isabelle Huppert and Jason Isaacs.

Only the hard-hearted wouldn’t be won over by an exuberant fairy tale about widowed Battersea charlady Ada Harris (a quietly commanding Jenna Russell) who falls in love with a couture Christian Dior dress she discovers at the home of wealthy employer Lady Dant (Kelly Price at her most imperious). Mesmerised – ‘it’s something to make you feel’ – Ada is determined to have one of her own, even though it costs a year’s wages. With the help of friend/fellow charlady Violet (a droll portrayal by Annie Wensak), much cleaning, mending and luck results in Ada finally going to Paris to claim her Dior gown.

Flowers for Mrs Harris is less Musical Theatre and more operetta in style with through-singing and counterpoint

Although this is essentially a feelgood ‘will Cinderella go to the ball?’ show, there are a number of deeper themes explored, including class, loss, loneliness, kindness and love. Director Bronagh Lagan evokes a melancholy, post-war era when Londoners continued to experience rationing and the after-effects of injury, relocation and bereavement (Ada loses her beloved Albert, who appears as an amiable ghost).

Flowers for Mrs Harris is less Musical Theatre and more operetta in style with through-singing and counterpoint. Musical director, conductor and keyboard player Jonathan Gill conducts his band of six with enthusiasm –maybe a bit too much in the first half, as the lyrics are sometimes masked.

But it’s worth sticking with the production for the second act where the sound mix is more sympathetic, Ada gets to Paris and in her self-effacing way helps people connect with one another. Here, the production finds its soul.

Although Russell dominates throughout, this is an ensemble piece with an excellent cast, most of whom double up roles – including Charlotte Kennedy playing spoilt wannabe actress Pamela in London, as well as Parisian model Natasha, who dreams of a simpler life. Hal Fowler, who is both Ada’s late husband Albert and the Marquis de Chassagne, stands out with his clear delivery and rich tones. He also joins Russell in the beautiful duet, ‘Rain on Me’. You might not exit the theatre humming any memorable tunes, but you’ll leave with a tear in your eye.

Nik Corrall’s set design consists of a row of South London houses, the central one on a revolve, with laundry hanging in alleyways. This transforms into a dreamy Parisian arrondissement by the clever appearance of Gallic-style painted house numbers and drapes, and lighting by Adam King that adds verve and colour.

Sara Perks’s splendid costumes run the gamut from Ada and Violet’s simple, workaday frocks and pinnies to Lady Dant’s peach-coloured twinset, pencil skirt and pearls, and Dior manager Madame Colbert’s elegant, figure-hugging attire. And hats off to gown designer Lez Brotherston and movement director Anjali Mehra for the showstopping, artistic highlight: a dazzling parade of dresses in the Dior show scene. The audience is spellbound watching the models bedecked in these shimmering works of art.

Flowers for Mrs Harris deserves all the bouquets bestowed upon it. It’s not just a tale of a lonely woman hankering after a designer creation. It’s about how everyone – ‘We’re all the same at heart, aren’t we?’ insists Ada – should be able to follow their dreams, whether they are starting a new career, trying to tell someone they love them, or wanting to enjoy a picnic with a slice of chocolate cake. And knowing it’s time to stop and smell the roses.

Production credits

Richard Taylor music, lyrics

Rachel Wagstaff book

Cast Jenna Russell, Hal Fowler, Annie Wensak, Kelly Price, Nathanael Campbell, Charlotte Kennedy et al

Direction Bronagh Lagan

Musical direction Jonathan Gill

Original orchestrations Richard Taylor

New orchestrations Jason Carr

Movement direction Anjali Mehra

Set Nik Corrall

Lighting Adam King

Sound Charlie Smith

Costumes Sara Perks

Dior-style gowns Lez Brotherston

This article originally appeared in the December 2023 / January 2024 issue of Musicals magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today