Last year an adaptation of the novel Flowers for Mrs Harris was released in to cinemas with Lesley Manville in the lead role. Yet although it was a pleasant enough effort it could have been subtler, and the central message that ‘Working class women have all got hearts of gold!’ didn’t need to be hammered home so overtly.
Given that I didn’t click with the film it might seem odd that I then went to see a musical version based on the book. But I absolutely love musicals – they’re my favourite genre, and as this Flowers for Mrs Harris has received some very positive reviews I took the risk. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have very mixed feelings about the production. The cast are great across the board, and all possess fine singing voices, but it simplifies the story to such an extent that quite a lot of its emotional impact is lost.
The first half sees Mrs Harris (Jenna Russell) trudging through life as she cleans the houses of the rich and sometimes snobby, and to give her a little more depth she regularly has imaginary conversations with Albert (Hal Fowler), the husband she lost in the war. Then, quite by chance, her life changes when she sees a Christian Dior dress in a client’s wardrobe and is blown away by its beauty, finding joy in seeing something so exquisitely designed. Wishing to own a similar object, this kickstarts the plot of the play.
Russell’s performance is impressive; she manages to make Mrs Harris feel realistic and sympathetic, and her songs are pleasantly sung, but they lack a certain something. They’re sweet or gently amusing but little more than that. Perhaps it fits her emotional repression, but I wished she was given at least one opportunity to really let loose. Yet this never occurs. It’s also made more noticeable as the supporting cast do get to have a lot of fun with numbers that highlight their personalities and/or desires, and those were the songs I found myself humming as I left the theatre.
In the second act Mrs Harris finally makes it to Paris, but there’s a major difference from the book and the film as it originally took a long time for anyone at Christian Dior to give Mrs Harris the time of day. They treated her in such an appalling manner that when she finally won them over it was a joyous moment. But here there’s just one scene where they’re grumpy with her then all but instantly apologise, which means a fair amount of the book’s observations on class are absent.
This is a very traditional musical and it’s easy to see how it could have been turned in to a film in the 1960s without any changes. It tells a cute enough story, has a great central performance and some fine support, but the staging is uninspired and the plot’s predictable. None of this would have been an issue with catchier songs that contained smarter lyrics concerning Mrs Harris’s plight and the working class world, but too many are frothy and light and almost instantly forgettable.
The ending at least offers up a quietly beautiful scene, although it did make me wish there had been others littered throughout the production. As a whole this undoubtedly has a gentle charm, and there’s no crime in offering a glimpse of a world which is simplistic and optimistic, but I still wish there had been more of the book’s depth and emotional heft.
Based on the novel by: Paul Gallico
Book by: Rachel Wagstaff,
Music and Lyrics by: Richard Taylor
Directed by: Bronagh Lagan
Musical Direction by: Jonathan Gill
Movement Direction by: – Anjali Mehra
Produced by: Katy Lipson for Aria Entertainment and Ollie Hancock for Tiny Giant Productions
Flowers for Mrs Harris is at the Riverside Studios until 24 November. Further information and bookings can be found here.