Flowers for Mrs Harris continues at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield until 4 June.
Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩
Daniel Evans, in the programme notes for his last production as artistic director of Sheffield Theatres, claims that Music and Lyrics Richard Taylor and Rachel Wagstaff’s Flowers for Mrs Harris has something of the Wagnerian about it. Surely a satirical reference to Opera North’s astonishing Ring Cycle playing up the M1 in Leeds and, in one crucial respect, completely wrong: in opera, a woman named in the title never survives to the end of Act III. Mrs Harris not only lives, she is redeemed and flourishing at the curtain.
Based on a novella by Paul Gallico, the plot concerns a London charwoman (Clare Burt) surviving post-war austerity. Her quotidian existence is shattered by the vision of a Christian Dior dress, seen in the bedroom of one of her wealthy clients. It represents more than just high fashion and glamour. For Mrs Harris, it is a symbol of the beauty that has rarely graced her life. She has to have a Dior dress of her own, not even necessarily to wear, and she sets out to acquire buy one.
This takes us to end of Act I and so far, so humdrum. We have already gathered that the text will be sung-through and that we are more or less in Sondheim country, although without the associated acerbic lyrics.
However, Act II, set mostly in the Dior studio in Paris, is more purposeful. Characters from before now become citizens of Paris, which must have occasioned some whirlwind costume changes as the pace quickens. The appearance of six girls modelling convincing Dior dresses is a dazzling moment.
Mrs Harris is a fish out of water, but with money to spend she is accepted. It is at this point that the moral begins to emerge as our main character, either deliberately or inadvertently, contributes to the happiness of others, a trajectory determined by her epiphany in London. She shows Madame Colbert (Rebecca Caine) how to stand up to authority, brings together the unlikely lovers (Laura Pitt-Pulford and Louis Maskell) and renews hope in life for the Marquis de Chassagne (Mark Meadows).
It is somewhere around here that, without a hint of self-consciousness, the show veers towards the saccharine side of schmaltz. There are witty moments, such as when Mrs Harris negotiates Customs by telling the officer that she has to declare the £520 Dior dress in her bag. He tells her to stop being so lairy and go through.
There were times I feared for the cast’s ankles as they raced aound either with or against the spin of the rotating stage. However, they survived whatever challenges designer Lez Brotherston devised, making full use of the the Crucible’s technical assets.
Lighting designer Mark Henderson pulls off some subtle effects. Mrs Harris’ first sighting of the dress is lit in a way normally reserved for religious ecstasy, though not, thankfully, reinforced by a heavenly choir, contrasting with austerity brownouts at home.
It would be churlish to even hint at the spectacular denouement. The sniffles around me suggested that this is a show for people who like three sugars in their tea. There must be more of them than I thought since they rose as one to give a standing ovation.
Readers may also be interested in:
Interview – Clare Burt on Flowers for Mrs Harris and creating new work