Is ‘Flowers for Mrs Harris’ the feelgood fairytale we need during a cost-of-living crisis? Bronagh Lagan’s revival of Richard Taylor and Rachel Wagstaff’s 2016 musical version of Paul Gallico’s 1958 novella, ‘Mrs ‘Arris Goes to Paris’, makes a good case for it.
Jenna Russell plays the eponymous working-class cleaner, who uncomplainingly improves the lives of a litany of selfish or oblivious clients in 1950s Battersea, while still grieving the death of her husband in World War One. This all changes when she catches sight of – and falls in love with – a Christian Dior dress in a brochure. Against all the odds, she decides she’s going to visit Dior’s store in Paris.
Last year, Gallico’s novella was adapted as a film starring Lesley Manville. The musical is arguably more reflective – gently underscoring that the dress Mrs Harris wants is really a stand-in for hope and connection in the face of loneliness and loss.
Wagstaff’s book gradually builds up a postwar world of coupons, scrimping and saving, full of daily sacrifices as society struggles with the aftermath of national and global upheaval. Mrs Harris is reminded time and again that her dreams aren’t for ‘people like her’. Taylor’s lyrics and score sweep all of this along with humour and dreamy romanticism, bringing a heady poignancy to the tale.
Russell is great as Mrs Harris, effortlessly combating the ‘saintly working-class’ stereotype with flashes of frustration and the smallest, sharpest moments of heartbreaking grief. It’s also a lot of fun to watch her and Anne Wensak as neighbour Violet basically hustle her clients to raise the money for her flight to France.
Lagan’s production bursts into life when the scene switches to Paris. Designer Nik Corrall’s cleverly whimsical set becomes a whirl of opening doors as the rest of the cast – doing double duty as characters in France as well as the UK – fully embrace playing the Parisians whose lives Mrs Harris improves in a day.
From Kelly Price as the initially haughty Madame Colbert, to Charlotte Kenney as wistful model Natasha, to Nathanael Campbell as lovelorn Andre, Lagan gives us a picture postcard Paris that evokes the exhilaration Mrs Harris feels during a private view at the Dior store. It’s all charmingly funny in the best possible way.
This show brims over with a kindness that may be more wish fulfilment than reality – that people’s efforts pay off and hard graft is ultimately rewarded – but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that right now. Soak it up and cheer Mrs Harris along.