Review – Flowers for Mrs Harris, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 22nd September 2018

Flowers for Mrs HarrisI remember reading about Flowers for Mrs Harris before it opened in Sheffield a couple of years back and finding that it failed to pique my interest much. Paul Gallico is a writer whose work has never drifted my way, and the bare bones of the story – post-war London charlady goes to Paris to buy a Dior dress – sounded horribly rooted in class and stereotype as well as sentimentally mushy. But then I read the reviews, and admitted to myself that I must have made a mistake.

FFMH1Now that Daniel Evans has taken over the reins at Chichester, I’m not surprised to see Flowers for Mrs H revived in the Festival Theatre, and the timing was right for Professor and Mrs Plum, Lord Liverpool, the Countess of Cockfosters and Mrs Chrisparkle and me to incorporate it as one of our theatrical weekends. The Countess had actually read the book in her youth; I don’t think she rated it much, so it was bold of her to consent to attending.

FFMH3London, 1947; free from the tyranny of war, but not of its austerity consequences. Widowed Mrs Harris and her next-door neighbour friend, widowed Mrs Butterfield, just about scrape a living by cleaning the houses of a variety of clients, from posh Lady Dant to wannabe actress Pamela, from a cantankerous retired Major to desperate writer Bob. But it’s when Mrs H goes to Lady D’s to clean (rather than Mrs B, who’s her usual daily) that she espies a Christian Dior dress hanging up in her wardrobe; FFMH2and it’s the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen. She goes home, chats to the spirit of her dead husband (as you do) and decides then and there that she must have one. Trouble is – it’s £450 – that’s £12,500 in today’s money. It’s going to take her years and years to save. But if Mrs H is one thing, she’s tenacious. She has her dream and she’s not going to let it go. But what happens when Mrs ‘Arris gets to Paris (to almost quote the US name of the book), and just how welcome is une femme de ménage at the exclusive Dior showroom?

FFMH9The book has been adapted into this production by Rachel Wagstaff, who also adapted Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong for the stage; and given a musical score by Richard Taylor who had composed the music for the Royal and Derngate’s production of The Go-Between in 2011. To my mind this is a much more successful venture than either of those previous shows. You won’t find any linguistic or musical fireworks on display in this production; I’ve heard comparisons with Sondheim in the composition department and, personally, I think that’s way off the mark. This is not remotely Sondheimesque; there are no glitteringly memorable tunes nor starkly powerful lyrics that set your teeth on edge at the truths they reveal. But that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy them. They create a mellifluous wash-over experience, accompanying the stage actions and the storytelling, but never taking over your attention or your senses.

FFMH4Sentimental? Most definitely yes. Mushy? Surprisingly no. The characterisations throughout are very strong and it’s written with honesty and integrity so that the audience fully appreciates the motivations for what takes place. However, the story itself is delicate and sensitively told. We didn’t quite get a tear in the eye on a few occasions in the second act, but it wasn’t far off. What you do come away from this show with, is a sense that kindness and decency go a long way in making the world a brighter place; the more you give, the more you get. Despite the lack of welcome she receives in Paris, the kindness she gives spreads out like ripples in the water. Happy ending? That’s up to you to decide, depending on your own priorities in life. The colour and light that comes into her world at the end (and indeed, on to the Festival Theatre stage) are unmistakeably heart-warming and life-enhancing.

FFMH8As you would expect, the creative team have gone all out to make this a show to please all the senses. Tom Brady’s ten-piece band deliver Richard Taylor’s score with passion and depth. Lez Brotherston (who else?) has created a deceptively simple set that utilises a revolving track to create the illusion of space, distance and movement brilliantly; and the modest furniture of Ada’s London kitchen drops in and out of view with satisfyingly technical precision. There’s some very inventive use of the staircase, and – no question – some stunning frocks on display in the Paris showroom. And don’t forget those flowers. All those flowers. How can flowers be so emotional?

FFMH5At the heart of the show is a great performance by Claire Burt as Mrs Harris; battered by life’s experiences but incredibly resilient and hugely generous of spirit. Having seen Miss Burt earlier this year as Miss Littlewood, I know that she has an incredible stage presence and a wonderful way of connecting with the audience. Ada Harris doesn’t have the same brash self-confidence that Joan Littlewood does, so Miss Burt channels all her stage efforts to reflect the character’s good nature and innate decency. I must say, we were all a little concerned at the beginning because Miss Burt hit quite a few bum notes in the first ten minutes and I wondered if she was suffering with a virus; however, as the show warmed up, so did she and in the end she gave a beautiful vocal performance.

FFMH6The rest of the cast create a true ensemble, with different roles in both London and Paris. Claire Machin is particularly good as Violet Butterfield, Mrs Harris’ hot-headed friend who only wants the best for her even though she can’t always express it. Joanna Riding is an exquisitely refined Lady Dant and a beautifully flawed Madame Colbert, struggling with the status of her position in conflict with her natural warmth. Laura Pitt-Pulford is wonderful as the lovely Natasha in Paris and suitably irksome as the difficult Pamela. Louis Maskell receives the Best Wobbly Legs on Staircase Award for his brilliant performance as Fauvel, and there are also a series of enjoyable cameos from an otherwise underused Gary Wilmot. The rest of the cast all give sterling support and high-quality performances.

FFMH7I’m not sure what my expectations were of this show – but I feel that they were exceeded. In the simplest terms, it’s just all very lovely, very sweet, and very heart-warming. You’ll leave the theatre with a love for your fellow man that you might not have noticed on your way in. It’s on until Saturday 29th, but I wouldn’t be remotely surprised to discover it appearing on some other stage in the not too distant future.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Titanic the Musical, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th June 2018

Titanic the MusicalWell I’ve seen some examples of dramatic irony but this one takes the biscuit. When the audience knows something that the characters don’t, it’s meant to create a greater sense of tension, or heroism, or humour, or any combination of any number of emotional responses. But I can think of few shows greater than Titanic the Musical where the horror of what lies ahead is so clear to the audience but the characters are blindly oblivious to the danger. When the good ship finally sets sail but one game chap turns up too late, doesn’t get on board, and is furious with himself, not one person in that audience last night didn’t say to themselves “you don’t know how lucky you are.”

Simon Green as IsmayThere is one character who knows what lies ahead, though: J Bruce Ismay, director of White Star Line and therefore owner of the Titanic; in the opening scene we see him ravaged with agony as he looks back at the triumphal launch of the ship, despairing at its complacent captain and self-satisfied designer – a scene which all makes sense when it’s re-enacted at the end of the show, much as the structure of Blood Brothers begins and ends with the death of the Johnston twins, to increase the sense of melodrama. All Ismay can do at the end is look forward to a lifetime of regret; but that’s more than the 1500 people who perished can do. It’s fair to say that this show paints Ismay as a not very likeable man.

Niall Sheehy as BarrettSo how would you spend your last minutes alive on board a ship like the Titanic, if you knew your number was up and there’s no way out? In desperate sadness? In resigned acceptance? Take your own life first? Crack open a bottle of 1898 Cristal champagne? They’re all options. And what you come away with from this show, is an immense sense of respect for everyone on board, even those whose occasional dereliction of duty may have to some extent caused the disaster. The final scene of the show presents the audience with a wall of names of those who died, and it’s a very moving testament.

Dudley Rogers and Judith Street as the StrausesBut although we all know right from the very start that this story only has one, inexorable, tragic ending, this show tells a far from gloomy story. If you’ve ever gone on a cruise holiday, gentle reader, then you’ll know that almost indescribable sense of excitement, bewilderment and curiosity that is the hallmark of those first few hours at sea, and this show captures that thrilling optimism perfectly. And then you have the main content of the show, the several interweaving threads of the lives of individual passengers, all thrown together arbitrarily simply by virtue of having got on the same ship together. It would be impossible to depict over 2000 lives, so Peter Stone’s book and Maury Yeston’s superb music and lyrics present us with just a handful of relationships, from the first, second and third class passengers, as well as the professional relationships of officers and crew. The enduring love affair between Mr and Mrs Straus (first class – owners of Macy’s), the strained relationship between Edgar Beane and his never satisfied, wannabe socialite wife Alice (second class) and the instant cheeky pairing-up of Kate McGowan and Jim Farrell (third class passengers working their way to a better life in America) represent all human life on board, and it works incredibly well.

Philip Rham as the Captain and Oliver Marshall as BrideTechnically it’s a relatively simple show, but that means those special effects that are there have a greater impact than you might otherwise expect. The railings at the top end of the ship move upwards as the ship starts to sink, giving an incredibly effective portrayal of a man hanging on for dear life. The appalling graunching sound of the ship ploughing into the side of an iceberg stops us in our tracks and then strong white lights illuminate both the stage and the audience as if to say we’re all in this together and make us feel equally vulnerable as the characters.

EnsembleMusically I found the show highly entertaining and rewarding, and I felt it gave some nods to a few other shows that are also highly charged with emotion and drama. Apart from the structural framework that aligns it to Blood Brothers, I recognised a lot of The Hired Man in there, not so much in any particular song or scene but in the overall combination of strong individual and clear singing with emotionally charged words and situations, particularly with the third class passengers. Maybe it’s because they share similar themes and both take place in the 1910s. Whilst we’re on the subject of clarity, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a musical show where each word was so beautifully enunciated throughout that it achieved an absolute 100% accuracy-to-ear delivery, and for that alone Titanic the Musical deserves an award.

The BlameThere were some Sweeney Todd nuances too, with Andrews’ pride and joy in his design reminding me of Todd’s affection for his barbers’ razors; and when, facing death, he’s re-designing his blueprint so the ship can’t sink, the music becomes very reminiscent of Jesus Christ Superstar’s sequence, Take him to Pilate, Take him to Pilate! That reprimanding urgency is also very apparent in the song The Blame, where Captain, owner and architect each point the finger at the other without anyone taking responsibility. You can really imagine that’s exactly how it happened. There was a lot of ambition, power and money at stake. Some important people with big egos playing with other peoples’ lives in order to boost their own fortunes and reputations. You can see it happening in the news today. We never learn.

Greg Castiglioni as AndrewsA large and talented cast bring this story to buzzing life with some superb performances. Simon Green’s Ismay is an immaculate portrayal of a workplace bully, pestering and pestering again until he gets the answer he wants; today he’d be up for corporate manslaughter, coward that he is. At the other end of the power seesaw, Philip Rham’s Captain Edward Smith is a rigid stickler for the old ways of doing things, but torn between his responsibilities for the lives on board and his having to toe the line of his financial paymaster. Constantly showing poor judgment by increasing the speed when he knows it is risky and ignoring iceberg warnings, he’s a complex character given a fascinating portrayal. He really looks the part too – if you ever wondered what happened to the bloke who played The Ghost and Mrs Muir

Victoria Serra as Kate McGowanThere’s a magic partnership between Dudley Rogers and Judith Street as Isidor and Ida Straus, the genteel older couple who’ve first-classed it through many a sea crossing; I defy you to watch them perform the song Still and maintain you kept a dry eye. I also really enjoyed Matthew McKenna’s performance as Mr Etches, the First Class Steward, who keeps a beautifully ordered table and knows how to smooth the waters (sadly not literally) without upsetting the boat (same observation applies).

Claire Machin and Timothy Quinlan as the BeanesThere’s a delightful performance from Claire Machin as the socially ambitious Alice Beane – a little like an American Hyacinth Bucket but not as grotesque – I loved how she felt she had to dress up for going into the lifeboats; and Victoria Serra’s Kate McGowan is full of charm and roguish ambition. Great support too from Kieran Brown as the principled Murdoch, Oliver Marshall as the radioman Harold Bride, and Lewis Cornay as both the Bellboy and entertainer Wallace Hartley. Greg Castiglioni gives a brilliant performance as Thomas Andrews, the ship’s architect, worrying away over his plans, trying to keep up with the powerplay between Smith and Ismay; and, possibly best of all, Niall Sheehy is fantastic as Frederick Barrett, the workhorse employed as a stoker, promising to return to marry his girl, and putting the bravest of brave faces on his ultimate fate.

Barrett the StokerI enjoyed this so much more than I had expected; after the disappointment of Sting’s The Last Ship a few months ago I had an awful feeling that this would be a bad year for anything dramatically nautical. Not a bit of it. This is a powerful, moving, humbling tale immaculately sung throughout. There was a fairly instantaneous standing ovation that I was more than happy to join; and don’t forget to wander down towards the stage after the show to check the names of those who perished. After all, the whole production is done in their honour. After it’s final capsize in Northampton tomorrow, the tour continues to Nottingham, Blackpool, Bromley, Bradford and Liverpool, before enjoying a couple of weeks at the Staatsoper in Hamburg. I’d thoroughly recommend it.

To the lifeboatsP. S. Overheard at the interval; some people behind us were initially disappointed to realise this was not a musical version of the Leonard di Caprio/Kate Winslet movie. No, it isn’t. Fortunately, it’s good enough for them to have overcome their disappointment, which has to be A Good Thing.

Hold on Mr AndrewsP. P. S. It started a little late and we were anxious to get home so as we could watch the recording of England’s game against Belgium before going to bed. At the interval Mrs Chrisparkle noted the majority of musical numbers had already been performed, suggesting that the second act would be considerably shorter than the first (as indeed it is.) Her observation: I guess that shows there is a limit as to how much you can drag the arse out of drowning made me wonder quite how in the zone she was with her sympathies in this show.

Production photos by Scott Rylander