Review: Flowers for Mrs Harris - Chichester Festival Theatre

Clare Burt and Claire Machin in Flowers for Mrs Harris. Photo by Johan Persson
Clare Burt and Claire Machin in Flowers for Mrs Harris. Photo by Johan Persson

A £22m renewal of Chichester Festival Theatre in 2014 finally gave the venue the scope to stage the biggest and boldest productions.

It wasted no opportunity to build the most spectacular sets - everything from a forest and a river in Way Upstream to a stately mansion in this year’s Me and My Girl.

So this musical adaptation of Paul Gallico’s novel seems at first glance to be dwarfed by its surroundings.

The stage design is minimal. It’s almost a musical - but not quite in the sparkling traditions of the summer season. And the plot is threadbare.

Ada Harris (Clare Burt) is a cleaner living in a rented house in Battersea in the late 1940s. Her husband died during the second world war. Her life, to quote John Mortimer in a different context, flickers palely between the hum and the drum.

Then one day she sees a £450 Christian Dior dress in the home of one of the ladies for whom she cleans - and she has a compulsion to go to Paris and buy one for herself. It is the most beautiful thing she has ever seen.

So begins two and half years of working extra shifts - night and day - to realise her ambition.

You might think a production this modest could have comfortably fitted into the tiny adjoining Minerva Studio theatre with room to spare and there are times in the first half when you are left wondering how this has made its way into the 2018 Festival programme.

But Ada Harris exudes one quality that shimmers more brightly than even a Dior silk-crepe dress - so exquisitely paraded in the second act. She is profoundly kind - spreading a little human magic on the lives of everyone she meets.

And with a performance that is as elegant as it is honest, Burt’s commanding personality simply erupts across the stage.

This is, of course, not about a dress at all. It is about aspiration and attainment through hard work. More than that, as we finally balance Ada’s many friends against the frailty of the dress, the play visibly measures where true value and worth really lie.

By the final curtain, there are few dry eyes in the House and as the flowers of the titlepiece fill the stage you appreciate that as dazzling performances go, the Festival Theatre far from being too big was not quite large enough.