Interview – Clare Burt on Flowers for Mrs Harris and creating new work

ELEGY by Payne, , Writer - Nick Payne, Director - Josie Rourke, Designer - Tom Scutt, Lighting - Paule Constable, The Donmar Warehouse, London, UK, 2016, Credit: Johan Persson/

Clare Burt plays the title role in the world premiere of new musical Flowers for Mrs Harris at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield. Picture: Johan Persson

Actress CLARE BURT (This is My FamilyLondon Road) has returned to Sheffield Theatres to take on the title role in the world premiere of Flowers for Mrs Harris, Daniel Evans’ final production as artistic director at the venue (opening tonight, 23 May).

The new musical by Richard Taylor (The Go-BetweenTom’s Midnight Garden) and Rachel Wagstaff (Birdsong, Moonshadow), based on American writer Paul Gallico’s (The Poseidon Adventure) novel, runs until 4 June.

Clare Burt appeared at the Crucible Studio, Sheffield in the award-winning This is My Family (also national tour). For theatre, her work includes A Streetcar Named Desire, Vernon God Little (Young Vic), London Road, The Miracle, DNA and Babygirl, Coram Boy and Sunday in the Park With George (National Theatre), Into the Woods, Company and Nine (Donmar Warehouse), Game (Almeida Theatre); Separate Tables, Harliquinade (King’s Head Theatre); Broken Glass, Johnson Over Jordan (West Yorkshire Playhouse); Cat On a Hot Tin Roof (Dundee Repertory Theatre); and Now You Know (Metropolitan Room New York/Pizza On the Park).

For television, her work includes Top Boy, WPC 56, Criminal Justice, Company, M.I.T. and Wednesday at Eight; and for film, London Road, Rufus Norris’ BIFA award-winning film Broken, and X&Y.

It’s London 1947. Mrs Harris spends every day cheerfully cleaning for her clients. She wants for nothing. Or so she thinks… One day, she happens upon something that takes her breath away – a Christian Dior dress. And something deep within her awakens. She sets out on an unthinkable quest to have a Dior dress of her own. On her incredible journey, Mrs Harris realises that she can finally let go of her past.

Musical Theatre Review editor Lisa Martland caught up with Clare during rehearsals.

ELEGY by Payne, , Writer - Nick Payne, Director - Josie Rourke, Designer - Tom Scutt, Lighting - Paule Constable, The Donmar Warehouse, London, UK, 2016, Credit: Johan Persson/

Anna-Jane Casey, Rebecca Caine and Clare Burt rehearsing for Flowers for Mrs Harris. Picture: Johan Persson

What were rehearsals like for the show?

They have just been great. Firstly, it’s lovely working on a new piece, it’s what I aim to do full stop, it’s more interesting to me (other than classics by the likes of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, of course!). The company is lovely.

When did you first get involved in Flowers for Mrs Harris?

I’m pretty sure it was in the first workshop, which lasted around ten minutes, it was the first ten minutes of the show. I do lots of workshops, most actors do, but I remember thinking: ‘oh my gosh, this is so good.’

I thought the producers would get a massive name for the central role of Ada Harris, the part I’m now playing, but several workshops later I found out that Daniel [Evans, the director] wanted me to do it. So I have him to thank, he really championed me.

Is it good to be back at Sheffield and working with Daniel Evans again? 

It’s fantastic. When a director wants you for a second job, you have lost all the fear of having to impress them! It’s the best feeling, you go in and you can try out things, however stupid they may seem, because Daniel won’t care, he’ll encourage it.

And, of course, it is Daniel Evans’ last directorial project at the theatre…

Yes, that feels special. We all wanted Daniel’s last production to be great, and it really is great. Richard Taylor and Rachel Wagstaff have created such a beautiful structure and such a beautiful story.

The preview material about the show suggested Ada Harris’ life changes when she sees a Christian Dior dress. Can you tell us more?

It’s quite hard for me to talk about the story, without giving things away. People think it’s just about Ada wanting a Dior dress, but it’s so much more than that. It’s about what she recognises within herself when she sees the dress.

The other day there was a fantastic quote in an interview with Monica Lewinsky in The Guardian. Monica Lewinsky quoted essayist and memoirist Anais Nin, and the words were: ‘And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.’ That is 100% the core of Ada Harris’ story. She recognises that everything isn’t good in her world and she need to let her go of her past; to make the leap takes extreme courage.

Daniel Evans, Rachel Wagstaff and company. by Johan Persson.jpgELEGY by Payne, , Writer - Nick Payne, Director - Josie Rourke, Designer - Tom Scutt, Lighting - Paule Constable, The Donmar Warehouse, London, UK, 2016, Credit: Johan Persson/

Director Daniel Evans, writer Rachel Wagstaff and company. Picture: Johan Persson

All the things that I can’t say about the story are those things that make it so beautiful. I suppose I can at least reveal that from Paul Gallico’s novella, the writers have expanded Ada’s personal story. There is more about her relationship with her husband and that tugs at the heartstrings all the way through.

That’s what makes it universal. We all can relate to what is going on with this woman in terms of her being frightened and yet trying to be brave enough to move on with her life.

I have watched videos of you singing a couple of the songs from Flowers for Mrs Harris which are touching even out of context. What do you think is special about the score?

Richard Taylor’s music just comes directly from his heart. It’s what moves him. You know when something is so honest, he’s not contriving it, and as a result we are all affected. I think there are very few songs in the show which don’t make you feel that way. I know I’m waxing lyrical but I really feel that is the case and I have done for three years since the first workshop.

How have you seen the show change during the different workshops?

That first ten minutes has changed quite a lot, the final bit of that section is still there though. That’s the point at which I first thought ‘wow, this is something special’, it’s the point at which she sees the dress. Last year was the first time the second act was up and running, and that was fantastic, it starts in a really unusual way, but I can’t say more than that.

Mark Meadows (Albert Harris & Marquis de Chassagne),Clare Burt (Mrs Harris) by Johan Persson.jpg

Mark Meadows (who plays Albert Harris and the Marquis de Chassagne) and Clare Burt (Mrs Harris). Picture: Johan Persson

It feels so fresh, not derivative of anything. I’m so in love with it.

You are joined in the cast by, among others, Anna-Jane Casey, Rebecca Caine and Laura Pitt-Pulford. How much fun is it hanging out with them?

It’s ridiculous, if we’re not crying, we’re absolutely howling. Many of us have had some of these life experiences, and as a result we weep throughout the whole thing! It’s lovely to know you are not the only one that is finding it unbearable!

Do you feel under pressure being in the main role and leading the company?

I don’t feel like I’m leading the company, I’ve got that real typical working-class thing; if I’m called the leading lady, it embarrasses me. But I do feel a responsibility to the piece and the role and I am very aware that a lot of its success rests on my shoulders. It is is huge, I’m only offstage for one and a half pages!

How have you approached the role, what qualities do you want to bring out in Ada?

She has to be a loveable and believable character, not irritating, not cute. She has to be real. It’s important that I sustain her journey, it’s a fantastic job for me to do.

ELEGY by Payne, , Writer - Nick Payne, Director - Josie Rourke, Designer - Tom Scutt, Lighting - Paule Constable, The Donmar Warehouse, London, UK, 2016, Credit: Johan Persson/

You have created roles before (in This is My Family, London Road and the play Game) – what do you like about doing that?

There’s no rules, it’s all up for grabs, it’s all about what we create. At the end of the day it comes down to the work. I don’t really like anything about this profession except doing the work. I’m rubbish at all the rest of it. I don’t like the celebrity side, it makes me embarrassed.

The idea of being on the red carpet and having 40 photographers asking who I’m wearing and me thinking I don’t know who I’m wearing, I just don’t feel comfortable with that [although Clare sometimes has to put up with the trappings of celebrity, as her partner is the actor Larry Lamb].

With new material, it’s so special to be at the beginning of something, the birth of a new piece or a new writer, discovering a new writer is always exciting.

Do you think there is enough support for writers of new musical theatre?

It’s difficult to know. When someone like Daniel is in charge of things, it’s often going to happen, but we need more Daniels. I appreciate how there are huge costs with new musicals, but we have such a need for them – it’s a fantastic genre. There are so many varied musicals around at the moment. It’s amazing that pieces like London Road can happen.

* Flowers for Mrs Harris continues at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield until 4 June 2016.

www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk

 

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