“There is more to life than you ever knew, than you ever dreamed,”
Sheffield feels the right place for Flowers for Mrs Harris to come into bloom, its delicately understated charm and musicality making this a world away from the brash, cut-throat commercialism of West End musicals. That’s not to say I wouldn’t love to see this show come down to the capital, for it does deserve such wider attention, but rather to celebrate the creation and nurturing of musical theatre from all parts of the country, a recognition of a theatrical ecology that thrives far beyond the M25.
Daniel Evans’ artistic directorship of Sheffield Theatres, which ends with this production, has been a key part of that over the last few years and it is pleasing to see that his presence in the overall picture will continue as he departs for Chichester Festival Theatre. As for now, we get a gorgeous piece of unmistakably British musical theatre that is as heart-warming and tear-jerking as they come, a tenderly sentimental exploration of far-fetched dreams and earthily real friendships.
Based on a 1958 novella by Paul Gallico, Rachel Wagstaff’s book and Richard Taylor’s music and lyrics tell the almost mythical tale of Mrs Ada Harris, a widowed London charlady in her 50s, whose life has been dedicated to the service of others. One day, she espies a Christian Dior dress in the closet of a client and decides that she would like to own one for herself, setting about the gargantuan task of scrimping and saving until she can, incredibly, make her dream come true. And as we move from London to Paris, her generosity of heart continues to inspire those around her.
It’s beautifully, gorgeously, done. Clare Burt soars with an almost magical sense of dignified wonder, her Mrs Harris improving the lives of so many of those who come into contact with her in the cleverly constructed extravagance of Lez Brotherston’s set (though it was a neat kitchen cupboard that caught my eye). She’s supported by a stunning supporting cast who switch roles post-interval – Nicola Sloane’s dressmaker brimming with pride at being acknowledged, Laura Pitt-Pulford’s snooty actress, Mark Meadows as both the departed Mr Harris and a twinkle-eyed marquis, everyone just shines with loveliness.
They’re helped by an interesting score from Taylor that eschews brassy showtunes for a more melodious conversational style, which draws the listener into the set-up of the (slightly too long) first act through to the glorious celebration of the second. And you’re struck by just how clever Evans has been here in this final programming choice, echoing the transformative power of musical theatre classics like My Fair Lady and Me and My Girl in a story that truly celebrates the beauty in the ordinary.