Monday, 1 October 2018

REVIEW: Flowers for Mrs Harris at the Chichester Festival Theatre

Any review of Flowers for Mrs Harris has to start at the end of the show as the magical uplifting final sequence back in her Battersea home makes the whole production worthwhile; when Clare Burt as Mrs Ida Harris stands in her sixties kitchen and baskets of flowers are loaded on to the revolve one by one from her friends and the people whose lives are touched, one can't help shed a tear of joy for her and the production.

The second half of the production explodes into life when Andre Fauvel, played with comical delight by Louis Maskell, is kissed on the cheek by Natasha, Laura Pitt-Pulford. His rubbery legs and comic walk on the stairs of the Christian Dior showroom kicks off the show and from that moment the whole production lifts, the characters expand and the music seems more melodic. 

The challenge is that over the preceding seventy minutes the show is slow and laborious establishing Mrs Harris's humdrum life with her British cleaning clients thinly sketched. She is a lonely widow who sets a single goal to acquire a Dior gown. The music has echoes of Sondheim but is not varied enough and lacks the comedic elements which make the second half sparkle. It needs a judicious cut, a new tune and to play up the comic interplay with her local acquaintances. 

Once again the Chichester Thrust stage becomes a limiting factor for the designer Lez Brotherston and director Daniel Evans forcing them to rely heavily on a small thin revolve used to set props and indicate movement . The use of traps is effective to set her kitchen but the rest of the show is set on the large cobbled expanse of the stage and the constant use of the revolve confines the actors to the thin strip on which the props are set in an irritating and distracting way.

Gary Wilmot is one of the most likeable musical theatre performers and his roles as the Major in Britain and Armande, Waiter and Customs Officer in Paris give great opportunities for his comic character creations which he delivers with joy and serious intent to great effect. Mark Meadows as Mrs Harris two admirers, her husband Albert and the French Marquis de Chassagne is also very good conveying the gentle love of both for Mrs Harris. 

The charm of this simple story is summed up by Mrs Harris herself when she
says in Act 1, "a life without flowers isn't any sort of life at all" and in Act 2 as she watches the models showing of the new collection says "life does not get better than this; makes it all worthwhile". But later she discovers that friends are more important than the dress or the flowers and realises that she will never feel lonely again.

The show is memorable not for the music or the story but for the wonderful four central performances lead by Clare Burt with support from Meadows, Maskell and Wilmot and its glorious finale when the Flowers for Mrs Harris are delivered. It is a pleasant conclusion after such a dreary first act which limits the potential of this musical and it feels unlikely that it will transfer to the West End. 

Review by Nick Wayne

Rating: ★★★

Seat: Stalls row N | Price of Ticket: £52
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