The reponse from the arts community to the restrictions of the COVID pandemic has been remarkable; theatre buildings may be closed for a few months but online the industry is thriving with almost overwhelming numbers of productions available to stream, remote theatre and musical events being put together and new content being uploaded regularly. The speed and dexterity with which this has all happened has been astonishing with audiences consuming it in their millions, yes millions! Some of the newer events are for charity including a screening of sell-out event Fleabag where for a few pounds, donated to support NHS workers, as well as theatremakers and staff affected by closures, you can watch one of the hot ticket shows of the last few years at a fraction of the £200 top seat price in the West End. But much of the content available is completely free to keep the community of theatre-lovers alive, and last week Chichester Festival Theatre (CFT) also joined the party.
The theatre in Chichester has long been a major feeder location for the West End, transferring numerous productions in recent years including Ian McKellen’s moving King Lear, a superb version of Private Lives with Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens, and James Graham’s last big hit Quiz which has been reworked as a three-part television drama broadcast from tonight. CFT has also had major success with musical productions including Half a Sixpence which came to London, so the choice of last year’s Flowers for Mrs Harris to launch its production screening programme is an interesting one.
Looking at the synopsis, it would be easy to dismiss Rachel Wagstaff and Richard Taylor’s show, which premiered in 2016 at the Sheffield Theatre, as a frivolous, inconsequential thing in which a Working Class cleaner in the late 1940s dreams of owning a Dior dress, a consumerist fantasy about fashion that has little to tell us. But across the 2 hours and 15 minutes of this life-affirming production, you will be enchanted by its heart, fall in love with its sweetly self-effacing central character and be swept away by the importance of even the smallest of dreams. For this is the rarest of things, a Working Class musical.
Seeing Blood Brothers again on its recent UK tour, it was a striking reminder of how few musicals truly explore the Working Class experience and even fewer from the perspective of a middle-aged woman. The big new shows of the past few years – Hadestown, Six and Dear Evan Hansen – are balanced by film to stage translations of American movies such as Heathers, 9 to 5 and Waitress, none of which had class as a key driver. Apart from Billy Elliot, also a film adaptation, and a Spend, Spend, Spend revival which popped-up at the Union Theatre in 2015, the Working Class have been largely excluded from the modern musical. Even plays tend to be quite narrow in their depiction of Working Class characters (usually living in blocks of flats, dealing drugs or participating in antisocial behaviour), so this heartwarming depiction of a hard-working woman whose decency and humanity make her dreams come true is a tonic in more ways than one.
This production has been filmed with considerable care and with good quality camerwork. It is a broad stage at Chichester and while occasionally the intimacy of the first half looks a little lost in the expanse, on the whole the balance between capturing the myriad interactions Mrs Harris has with clients and friends that demonstrate the breadth of her world, as well as the psychological development of her character as she learns that wish fulfillment is not all it seems, are well presented in the use of wideshots and close-ups throughout the show. But the filming style really comes into its own in Act Two as the story moves to the Dior showroom in Paris, transporting the audience to the Hollywood Golden Age influence by films featuring fashion sequences including Funny Face and Singing in the Rain, as well as the warmly fantastical visuals of An American in Paris.
Director Daniel Evans draws those contrasts so well, comparing Mrs Harris’s dream and the reality of her life in post-war London with some skill. Designer Lez Brotherston takes his influence from cinema in the heightened reality of both locations, delineated by charming painted and staged backdrops of the very different London and Paris skylines. The Battersea of 1947 is overshadowed by the circular metal scale of gas towers and the close-packed terraced housing of the era. Ada Harris’s home is a represented by a welcoming kitchen table and cupboard that imply simplicity but easy comfort, a small but cosy flat where neighbours and friends drop by for tea and cake. The homes of her customers are even simpler, a scattering of clothes and props on the revolve around the central circle, all on a cobbled floor that doubles seamlessly for the streets of London and of fashionable Paris.
In Act Two, the French capital fills the stage more fully and the production really comes into its own as a fashion show transforms it with colour and beauty. Brotherston has created a grand central staircase that references the famous Chanel Steps and adds elegance to the showcase of stunning gowns that Mrs Harris finally gets to witness – and note the newness of the designs and the fresh influence of Dior in the years after the Second World War was considerable and suprising after years of rationing and austerity. The revolve is put to good use here too as a slightly expanded set of characters linked to the fashion house emerge including the head seamstress, the manager and accountant as well as a lonely young model and charming fellow customer. It is a whirl of soft-focus glamour and dreamlike appeal which on camera has the rosy glow and pizzazz of an MGM 50s musical, a cartoony vision centered around a character whose gentle charm grows with every moment of the production.
“Every woman is a princess” is this show’s mantra, inspired by a phrase in the Dior catalogue that well to do Lady Dant gives to Ada after admiring the splendid evening gown she sees in her wardrobe. And in many ways this is a classic story of Working Class aspiration, where, just like Mrs Johnstone in Blood Brothers, Ada Harris dreams of a better life, a different kind of world that could have been hers had she been born in a different class. The light comparison in Act One between Ada and Lady Dant mirrors that between Mrs Johnstone and Mrs Lyons in Blood Brothers, a chance to juxtapose lives and purpose.
But Wagstaff and Taylor are offering something far more complex in fact, and while Ada covets the beautiful gown, her reasons are personal and meaningful, while at no point does she express any dissatisfaction with her lot in life or desire to be anyone other than she is. It is crucial that she wants the dress purely as an object of art, not to wear or to be someone else, but to lift her spirits of an evening by admiring its cut and flow, a right she has earned by saving and working hard rather than by luck or happenstance. And that is what makes this show so heartwarming, that all she wants is a little unobtainable beauty in her life as any of us might admire a painting or scenic view.
And one of the most enjoyable aspects of the story is how it continues to subvert your expectation throughout, including an upending revelation in the final moments of Act One as the audience realises things have not been quite what they seem. There are no easy ways out for these characters, so when Ada finally has some luck in the early part of the show and you expect that she will inevitably end up in Paris, before long that dream once again has moved out of reach as fate steps in to dampen the effect of the lucky break.
The message instead focuses on hardwork and kindness in achieving your goals, that participating in community, as Ada does and her clients go on to learn, brings manifold rewards for everyone – surely a message for our times. So as Ada gives her attention and care to the sweet aspiring photographer, the grumbling major, the isolated Countess and the selfish wannabe actress as well as the equivalent workers of Dior that she meets only for a couple of days, Ada as much as any of then learns the value of that connectedness – goodness is its own reward.
What a delightful performance from Clare Burt as Mrs Harris and the camerawork ensures you really come to know and root for her by the end of the night. Her charm lies in her essential decency, a motherly approach to her customers’ chaotic lives and the hardworking acceptance of every trial and tribulation. When discussing the dress, Burt’s face lights up with a childlike wonder at discovering something quite beyond her experience and imagination hitherto, but there is incredible pathos as the audience learns more about this quiet but resolute woman whose earlier life has been unceremoniously packed away. You really feel for her as her dreams come true and generate their own set of consequences which Burt charts with care and sensitivity while never detracting from the determination and drive to make the best of every situation, largely for the benefit of others.
The secondary cast double roles as Ada’s London clients and friends as well as their Parisian equivalents in Dior. Having been so wonderful in The Grinning Man (and a streamed version of that would be a delight right now), Louis Maskell tackles two accountants in love with an unobtainable girl. The Parisian version Andre has most of the limelight and Maskell draws out the comic nervousness of a shy young man with big wobbly gestures and a hesitancy that becomes very sweet. Laura Pitt-Pulford as his love interest is two quite different girls, the sulky and histrionic Pamela in London as well as the reluctant model who longs to forego the parties for a more homely life. Gary Wilmot is a gruff military man desperate to rediscover the foxtrot and an exuberant fashion house manager, while Joanna Riding takes on two pivotal roles as the dress-owning society Dame and the Dior frontwoman whose gruff exterior melts in Mrs Harris’s presence. Lovely work too from Mark Meadows as the gentle Arthur Harris encouraging his wife to go for her dreams and take care of herself.
Daniel Evans’s production may on camera seem a little stranded on the wide stage which offers little variation in the staging of Act One, but the transition to Paris is brilliantly achieved and by then the loveliness of the tale has already taken hold. One Man, Two Guvnors was a morale-boosting romp last week while Flowers for Mrs Harris is the sweet story of goodness and community we all need to hear. Far from frivolous, this fashion-based drama is a great choice for Chichester Festival Theatre’s inaugural broadcast, from a venue that so often gets it right. Perfect escapism.