REVIEW: Flowers For Mrs Harris

Chichester Festival Theatre

THERE’S a dangerous trap at the heart of Chichester’s staging of this nearly-new musical for any critic, writes Ian Murray.

Opened surely not by complete accident while the pretty things throng to London Fashion Week, at its central core there is the beauty and genius of designer Christian Dior.

Not to fall in love with his dresses, even the sensational copies created here, is virtually impossible. Making the art of his frocks the star of the show is an attractive option.

And yet this would be to downgrade the two true stars of this production: the tremendous performances, and the music itself.

The story is a simple one. In post second world war London, char lady Mrs Harris is brought face to face with real beauty in the form of an (unseen) Dior dress.

From that moment she is obsessed with owing one. She has no desire to wear it. No aching to show it off. Just the all-consuming passion of someone deeply, deeply in love to possess it. “Something to come home to,” says the careworn, more than slightly shabby Ada, played by the sensational Clare Burt to her lifelong pal and next door neighbour Violet Butterfield (Claire Machine).

There follows a gorgeous romp as the pair of pals set out to raise the humungous cost of actually buying one of Dior’s creations which entails an inevitable trip to Paris with all the barriers to travel in 1947 Europe still living through post-war rationing, including clothes coupons.

Burt is on stage for almost all of the production, the other members of the cast interweaving their characters for the Battersea and Champs Elyse scenes.

And through it all runs the stunning music and lyrics of Richard Taylor.

The sets are simple, the robes are divine, the people kind at heart or simply misguided. Ada Harris weaves her home-spun magic through it all, opening the eyes of those mired in everyday toil or blind to the potential beauty of their lives. The revelations are comic and teary – at least one lady in our audience let out an audible groan as Ada faced her final challenges.

The message: beauty is inevitably found within, even when it is wrapped in a Dior package.

Runs until September 29. Take hope and a hanky.

Ian Murray