REVIEW: Flowers For Mrs Harris, Chichester Festival Theatre, until September 29
A terrific closing few minutes cap an excellent second half which redeems much of a first half which demands just a little too much patience.
This is a musical which grows and grows and, of course, is all the more powerful as a result; but it takes too long to find its feet in an over cor-blimey opening hour which gives you too much time to reflect that this is the kind of music you will either like or you won’t. It’s as simple as that. You won’t come home humming the tunes; and too often you don’t even catch all the words. The interval may well find you seriously underwhelmed – and also irritated by a maddening over-use of the revolve which seems to send everything and everyone round and round endlessly before your eyes.
And yet first-half grumpiness is fairly quickly dispelled in a second half which is instantly much stronger thanks to our arrival in Paris.
Flowers For Mrs Harris is the tale of heart-of-gold post-war London cleaning lady Ada, beautifully and movingly played by Clare Burt in her portrayal of a woman who is generous and selfless to a fault, even when she bizarrely sets her heart on possessing a mega-expensive Dior dress obtainable only in Paris.
Ada is old school. She works and works and works, saving every penny until she can make her trip a reality in a first half bogged down by the drabness of her existence amid a cast of people who mostly take her utterly for granted. Watching someone save up for a dress, however fantastically good-hearted she is, doesn’t necessarily make terribly interesting viewing.
But thank goodness for Paris where Ada continues to do what she does naturally, but does it in a considerably more glamorous setting, her generosity of spirit infecting those around her.
It is all beautifully done especially when she turns match-maker for the love-shy Natasha (Laura Pitt-Pulford) and Andre (Louis Maskell), and when the Marquis (Mark Meadows) seems to offer Ada her own chance of happiness, finally we get the sense of complete involvement with the piece the first half is lacking. Elsewhere Gary Wilmot is excellent in a range of roles.
And so it all picks up, an increasingly-touching portrayal of lonely people just needing a little help to get together. The finale is gorgeous both visually and emotionally. But the doubt will linger. Flowers For Mrs Harris will leave you wondering whether it wouldn’t have been better served by the Minerva where its slighter moments would have seemed rather bigger.