Riverside Studios, London
Music and lyrics by Richard Taylor
Book by Rachel Wagstaff
Based on the novel by Paul Gallico
Directed by Bronagh Lagan
Flowers For Mrs Harris is a carefully constructed fairytale for the 20th century that’s all about class, love and coping with bereavement.
Set in the rationed aftermath of World War Two, Ada Harris and Violet Butterfield are two working-class cleaning ladies from Battersea, both widowed in the Great War some 30 years previously. In a time of “make-do and mend” a chance swapping of the women’s wealthy clients sees Ada fall in love with a stunning Christian Dior dress and what follows is a whimsical, magical tale that sees her scrimp and save to travel to Paris to buy her own Dior frock.
The story is as charming as it is improbable, but what makes this revival of Richard Taylor & Rachel Wagstaff’s show is the stunning company that Bronagh Lagan has assembled. Jenna Russell is Ada Harris in a role that could have been written for her. Russell’s Ada is the most perfectly nuanced take on a woman whose character is strong and perceptive yet delicately fragile, a middle-aged cockney concocting heartbreak and humour faultlessly. The show’s tunes may not be memorable, but in the hands of Russell and her supporting cast, they form an exquisite and perceptive take on the human condition.
Not only is Jenna Russell magnificent, she is surrounded by a stunning ensemble. Without giving too much away, all of the actors who play characters from Ada’s Battersea life, pop up again in Paris subtly mirroring their previous incarnations. All are excellent, but worthy of mention are Hal Fowler who plays the spirit of Ada’s dead husband Albert in act one. As down-to-earth as his missus, Fowler’s turn is one of magnificent sensitivity.
Equally brilliant is Charlotte Kennedy, who in the second half stuns as Parisian model Natasha. Kennedy breathes humanity into the mannequin of her character with a vocal and physical presence that are both breathtaking. Annie Wensak’s Violet is another carefully weighted performance that skilfully mines the script’s comic seams.
The setting of the show is a little squashed at the Riverside, with perhaps budgetary constraints seeing Nik Corrall’s designs not doing justice to the actors’ flawless work. A nod though to Lez Brotherston’s Dior gowns, first and breathtakingly created for the show’s Sheffield premiere in 2016 and which have been generously loaned to this production, and also to Jonathan Gill's 6-piece band who are a delight.
But the evening belongs to Russell who delivers arguably the finest take on Ada Harris yet seen in this country. Flowers For Mrs Harris is gorgeous modern writing and an enchanting evening’s entertainment.
Runs until 25th November
Photo credit: Pamela Raith