Review by Daz Gale
It may have taken a while to get there but Flowers For Mrs Harris has finally had its London premiere as it currently takes up residency in Riverside Studios. With a recent movie adaptation bringing this touching story to a whole host of new fans, it feels like the stars are aligning making this the right time for the musical, but would everything come up roses for this production?
Based on the novel by Paul Gallico, the musical adaptation of Flowers For Mrs Harris premiered in Sheffield in 2016 and was followed by a hugely successful run at Chichester Festival Theatre in 2018. The filmed version of that production was streamed during the first lockdown in 2020, giving many of us a much-needed lifeline as we struggled without theatre. It also brought the story to a new audience, as I must admit that was the first time I had heard of the musical myself. It tells the story of Ada Harris who doesn’t need much in life until she falls in love with a Christian Dior dress while cleaning a client's house and makes it her mission to go to Paris and buy one herself.
If that doesn’t seem like the most arduous of plots, you would be underestimating the nature of the story. It isn’t so much about the end result in Flowers For Mrs Harris but the journey along the way. Ada Harris is a kind and generous soul who touches the lives of everyone she meets, having the power to transform them immeasurably in ways she might not have imagined. While these selfless acts can come at the expense of her wealth and happiness, karma has a way of coming back around and her generosity doesn’t go unnoticed.
It is that simple. Flowers For Mrs Harris is about human kindness and compassion. Adapted for the stage by Richard Taylor and Rachel Wagstaff, the writing perfectly displays the nature and intention of Mrs Harris bringing her personality and messages to a captivated audience. A sweet story, beautifully realised by Rachel Wagstaff’s book, it contains humour and heart – a LOT of heart, in a story that will ensure you have the biggest smile on your face as you leave, though you may also have shed a few tears in the process.
Stepping into the apron of Ada Harris is a West End legend as Jenna Russell takes on the role. A glorious performer at the best of times, Jenna may be better than ever in this role. There is a great affinity between her and the character she is playing, blurring the lines so much that she embodies the role completely and flawlessly. Effortlessly managing to bring emotion and depth to the character, Jenna gives a consistently commanding performance in the role in a truly stunning performance.
The remaining cast members all double up characters as the story switches countries in both acts. Annie Wensak provides the perfect other half to Jenna Russell’s double act as Violet Butterfield as a character many of us may recognise in our own lives. Charlotte Kennedy shows her versatility as Pamela and Natasha in a standout performance, while Kelly Price thrills in her role as Madame Colbert. Nathanael Campbell gives a heartfelt performance with his characters Bib and Andre who both share similarities in their stories to better their own lives and Hal Fowler delights in his time as Marquis De Chassagne.
The music by Richard Taylor elevates the story by providing a sweet and gentle soundtrack, allowing Jenna and the rest of the cast to use their talents to their full potential. From the touching opening number ‘All I Ever Needed’ to the standout ‘Rain On Me’, the numbers all pleasingly segue into the story. Don’t go to this show expecting a full rip-roaring belting number anywhere – the music in this is much softer and tender and refreshingly so. The musical equivalent of a warm hug on a cold day, it may not work in another story but feels perfect for this one,
Bronagh Lagan’s direction creatively brings the story to life and maximises the emotional impact exponentially. Using Nik Corrall’s fantastic set design which manages to double up as both London and Paris, there is a lot of fun to be had in realising this story in the way it is done here. Tying the writing together fantastically, Flowers For Mrs Harris is a show where every element is used to reveal the true beauty of the story and never falters in its attempts to do so.
In a world that is increasingly dark and scary, full of negativity and hatred, Flowers For Mrs Harris is the remedy we all need right now. With its message of hope and a gentle innocence you rarely see on the stage, this is one of the most heartwarming shows I have ever seen. Simply beautiful in every way, this life-affirming and uplifting show is exquisite thanks to its writing, music, and sensational cast. A complete joy to watch in every way, this is one production that truly deserves all the flowers it’s given.
Flowers For Mrs Harris plays at Riverside Studios until 25th November. Tickets from https://riversidestudios.co.uk/see-and-do/flowers-for-mrs-harris-76122/
Photos by Pamela Raith