fri 14/06/2024

Flowers for Mrs Harris, Riverside Studios review - lovely, low-key musical finds a London berth | reviews, news & interviews

Flowers for Mrs Harris, Riverside Studios review - lovely, low-key musical finds a London berth

Flowers for Mrs Harris, Riverside Studios review - lovely, low-key musical finds a London berth

Jenna Russell in career-defining form as the widow of the title

Paris original: 'Flowers for Mrs Harris' hits LondonPamela Raith

Although based on the 1958 Paul Gallico novel Mrs 'Arris Goes To Paris, this musical adaptation arrived much later. With a book by Rachel Wagstaff and music and lyrics by Richard Taylor, Flowers for Mrs Harris premiered in Sheffield in 2016, directed by then artistic director Daniel Evans and starring Clare Burt (now appearing across town in Stephen Sondheim's Old Friends) as the eponymous Ada Harris.

When Evans transferred to the Chichester Festival Theatre the show was revived there in 2018, but this production marks its London premiere, a year after Lesley Manville led a film version of the same material. This time, directed by Bronagh Lagan and with Olivier award-winning actor Jenna Russell as Ada, Wagstaff and Taylor’s musical appears in safe, nurturing hands.Hal Fowler (left) with Jenna Russell at Riverside StudiosLongtime widow Ada Harris has learned to survive following the death of her husband. She chars for a mixed bag of clients, remains close to her neighbour Violet and knows her place in post-war, austerity Britain. One day by chance she sees a dress designed by the new Parisian couturier Christian Dior and is awed by its sheer beauty. Ada is so struck by the gown that she decides to set about buying one. Scrimping and saving, her route to Avenue Montaigne is far from easy, but good will and kindness breed good luck. Mrs Harris makes it to Paris and gently thaws frosty Parisian moods and wins the heart of everyone there. 

There’s a strong sentimental tone to Wagstaff’s book that could sit uneasily out of context, painting post-war London and Paris with an almost rose-tinted glow. It’s saved by Wagstaff’s compassionate writing and Taylor’s deceptively sophisticated score that sweeps and soars along with Ada’s remarkable journey. Although set in the 1950s, Taylor’s songs lean more toward Sondheim than Richard Rodgers and work exceptionally well, capturing the mood and underlying the themes. 

Lagan's staging makes especially good use of the desperately narrow space on the Riverside stage. Thankfully, there are no major dance numbers to accommodate and Nik Corrall's interesting set design consists of a facade of mismatched doorways in front of a grey smog-soaked washing line. The clever compromise allows the story to unfold fluently, interrupted only by a moveable staircase that seems more a hindrance than an asset. Costume designer Sara Perks has created some beautifully evocative Dior knock-offs that go a long way toward ramping up the glamour of the second act fashion parade. (Musicals don't feature enough fashion shows any more!) Lagan's production is a delight and, with a few visual tweaks, could – and indeed should – slip smoothly into the West End. 

As Ada, a superlative Jenna Russell articulates the often complex score with an easy confidence, underpinning Ada’s obvious strength and resilience with the vulnerability of a woman still mourning the loss of her husband. In Russell’s portrayal, we get Ada’s whole backstory with just a wistful look or an intonation in the voice. Ada has filled her life with work, always putting other people first to stave off loneliness – undoubtedly the subtext of this musical. It isn’t until the flower-strewn finale that Ada finally realises she has made some very special friends. 

Charlotte Kennedy in Flowers for Mrs HarrisThe leading lady is supported by an equally talented ensemble that double-up to play all the Parisian characters, as well. Hal Fowler (pictured above top with Russell) appears as Ada's late husband Albert, a dramatic device that allows us to hear Ada's innermost thoughts and feelings. Fowler's warm, mellifluous baritone counterpoints Russell beautifully and, as the Marquis, there's an authority in his voice and twinkle in his eye that hint at a life well lived: it's nice to know that Gallico brought the character back in a sequel to the original novel. Annie Wensak is great value as Violet, Ada's best-friend and neighbour, providing both conflict and support. There's similarly fine work from Kelly Price as London socialite Lady Dant and Charlotte Kennedy (pictured above right) as the spoiled, ungrateful starlet Pamela.

Despite its 1950s setting and period details, Flowers for Mrs Harris is a beautifully structured piece of contemporary musical theatre that is also an exceptional example of the art of adaptation. Lagan and musical director Jonathan Gill have worked wonders to bring it to London – its spiritual home, perhaps – and the evening belongs to Russell in what may be one of her finest roles to date. 

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