A sentimental fairytale of a musical, Flowers for Mrs Harris is based on the Paul Gallico novel published under the same title in the UK. As Mrs Arris Goes To Paris, its US title, it has been filmed three times with Gracie Fields, Angela Lansbury and Lesley Manville (with the H in Harris restored).
Ada Harris (Jenna Russell) is a charwoman living in Battersea, cleaning, mopping and running errands for those more well-to-do. She’s been a widow three decades since the Great War, but talks to her husband Albert every day.
One day, covering for her friend Violet’s cleaning job, Mrs Harris spots a lovely dress, shimmering with all the colours of the rainbow. From Christian Dior. Costing north of £400, a year’s wages. Suddenly the dull routine of Ada Harris bursts into life.
Adapted here by Rachel Wagstaff, with music and lyrics by Richard Taylor, this much-loved production has been doing the rounds since Sheffield in 2016 and remains delightful in its London premiere as Mrs Harris scrimps and saves to achieve her dream.
With a genuine warmth between Russell and Hal Fowler (playing both Albert Harris, and Albert, the French Marquis who loves flowers), Flowers for Mrs Harris captures the heart.
There’s good work, too, from others in the cast, notably of Charlotte Kennedy (a vain wannabee actress and a model longing for an ordinary life), Kelly Price’s slowly thawing Mme Colbert, and David McKechnie’s pessimistic Major.
Pippa Winslow’s pathetic Russian countess and proud seamstress touch the heart in a moment, while Nathaniel Campbell offers a comic turn as Mr Andre, Dior’s accountant.
It’s all a fantasy, of course, just as much a fantasy as Mrs Harris seeing her husband day after day. But in setting up and sending up the privileged classes and the House of Dior, it makes the clean broom, wisdom and optimism of Mrs Harris all too believable.
Director Bronagh Lagan and costume designer Sara Perks conjure up post-war austerity and the glamorous fashions of the 1950s, while Adam King’s lighting adds interest to Nik Corrall’s set of curiously numbered residences.
There’s something for everyone in this sweet show as good times come to all and love is in the air. The set may feel a little cramped – there’s a revolve but otherwise home remains very much in evidence – and the Riverside’s Studio 2 is a little chilly, but it all fades away in such good company.
Flowers for Mrs Harris continues at Riverside Studios until 25 Nov – tickets here.
Image credit: Pamela Raith