'Flowers for Mrs Harris' review – this charming musical adaptation is a grown-up fairy tale

Read our four-star review of Flowers for Mrs Harris, starring Jenna Russell, now in performances at the Riverside Studios to 25 November.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

The London run of Flowers for Mrs Harris, a charming musical adaptation of Paul Gallico’s 1958 novella, has been a long time coming: the production began in Sheffield in 2016 and played in Chichester two years later. Now this tale of a Battersea-dwelling charwoman with big dreams finally lands near Ada Harris’s patch, at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith.

Ada is a hard-working cleaner serving the lives of others – her demanding clients. But when she spies a Christian Dior dress in Lady Dant’s wardrobe, everything changes: it’s “something to make you feel”, a burst of colour, of fantasy, amid the gloom of postwar London. So, Ada dedicates herself to buying her own Dior creation – not easy when it costs an entire year’s wages, and there are rigid class barriers to overcome.

Ultimately, though, Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation doesn’t really dwell on those challenges. This is wish fulfilment of the gentlest kind, a grown-up fairy tale in which Ada’s essential goodness always wins through. A keen observer, she helps others to solve their problems – whether romantic, professional or psychological – and is rewarded in turn on this journey of self-discovery.

However, it’s easy to forgive the show its essential lack of jeopardy thanks to its gorgeous open-hearted sincerity. It’s suffused with grief, primarily Ada’s for her late husband Albert, but also a wider shell-shocked community, such as the wounded major or the homesick Russian countess. Rationing is in effect and there are frequent blackouts. Ada wants her dress not just as a luxury, but for something “to come home to”.

That makes the personal connections, the small acts of kindness and the wistful dreams feel all the more special. The message that rings out (and which our current government desperately needs to hear) is that everyone is deserving of happiness and of beauty, or art, no matter their circumstances.

There’s a big cast of supporting characters, and Richard Taylor’s conversational, almost sung-through score sets all of their interactions to music. It patiently and delicately builds to a wonderful tear-jerking climax, but there are definitely times when you wish a lengthy segment could be reduced to a few lines of dialogue. Taylor’s music is always lovely, but not especially impactful.

The production (originally directed by Daniel Evans, now helmed by Bronagh Lagan) also has its cast double up, playing their counterparts in London and Paris. It’s a witty conceit, but it means we retreat familiar ground, like the halting courtship between two youngsters, rather than thoroughly developing one set of characters.

Still, you’d follow Jenna Russell anywhere: she’s perfectly cast as the shrewd cockney grafter with a heart of gold. She and Hal Fowler, as Albert, fit together so naturally that you feel the terrible ache of that loss, but perhaps the real love story is her friendship with fellow cleaner and widow Violet. Annie Wensak is a brilliantly spirited pal, and her sense of betrayal when Ada desires something more is a rare spiky note.

There’s good support from Kelly Price as a name-dropping socialite and stressed Dior manager, Charlotte Kennedy as a bratty actress and an adrift model, and Nathanael Campbell as her two flustered beaus.

In Nik Corrall’s vivid period set, the front doors housing Ada’s clients are clustered together and backed by rows of washing lines – cosy but claustrophobic. The heavenly fashion parade of Dior designs (originally by Lez Brotherston, here conjured up by Sara Perks: candy-stripe New Look and blazing-scarlet wonders) is a bewildering contrast, like bursting into technicolour in The Wizard of Oz.

This Cinderella story dares you to dream, while also stressing the value of grounded, caring relationships. As Dior model Natasha explains, sometimes you want parties and Champagne, but sometimes you just want to share chocolate cake with the person you love.

Flowers for Mrs Harris is at the Riverside Studios to 25 November. Book Flowers for Mrs Harris tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Flowers for Mrs Harris (Photo by Pamela Raith)

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