“Have you ever wanted something so bad that you almost ache for it?” So says the titular Mrs Harris during the second half of Daniel Evans’ final production for Sheffield Theatres, and it’s that ache that provides the big, beating heart of this show. It takes some doing to turn an admittedly rather slight story about a woman who travels to buy to Paris to buy a dress she can’t really afford into a certified three-hanky weepie, but that’s exactly what Evans has done here.
Based on the 1958 novella by Paul Gallico, Mrs ‘Arris Goes To Paris, Evans, together with playwright Rachel Wagstaff and composer Richard Taylor, have created a more low-key type of musical. There are no big show-stopping numbers (in fact, you’d be hard pressed to hum a memorable tune), the glitz and glamour are kept at a distance, and the vast majority of the dialogue is sung in a conversational way. It’s an approach that’s hard to get your head around at first, but when it clicks – boy, does it fly.
The plot is a simple one – Ada Harris is a lonely widowed char lady working in 1950s London who, while covering shifts for her best friend and fellow char Violet, catches sight of a beautiful Christian Dior dress in the house of a wealthy customer. From then on, the dress becomes an obsession, and buoyed by a £100 win on the Pools, she scrimps and saves until she has enough money to fly to Paris and buy a dress from the House of Dior. Of course, it’s not just a pretty dress that Mrs Harris has a longing for: there’s the ache for her late husband, for friendship and for some self-worth, all of which are sated by her journey and self-discovery in France.
The first act takes a while to click into place: the rhythms of the sung dialogue take time to find the right pace, and there’s a large cast of characters to introduce who spin round on the Crucible’s revolving stage. Yet Evans is, by now, a master at hitting the right emotional buttons in musicals, and he taps them with just the right amount of weight here. There’s some audible sobbing in the audience when Ada has to sell her late husband’s watch to raise the airfare to Paris, and Claire Burt as Ada tugs at the heartstrings in conveying her loneliness.
It’s in the second half that Flowers really kicks into gear, when Ada arrives in Paris and due to her good cheer and straight-talking nature, ends up changing people’s lives even in the smallest way. Cleverly, most of the cast apart from Burt play mirror images of their English characters – so, we see Laura Pitt-Pulford as both a selfish actress and a kind-hearted French model with Louis Maskell playing her unrequited paramour in both countries. The rest of the mainly female cast excel too, and as they’re mainly from a musical background (names like Anna-Jane Casey, Nicola Sloane and Rebecca Caine have graced many a musical in their time) it’s no surprise that they deal with the sung dialogue quite beautifully.
Despite a lengthy 2 hours 40 minute running time, it doesn’t seem like a second is wasted – the last 15 minutes in particular are pretty much a theatrical tour-de-force as flowers fill the stage and the emotions start to spill out. It’s a cliché, but there really isn’t a dry eye in the house by the time the curtain closes. There’s a glamour to the costumes (and thanks to designer Lez Brotherston, they’re pretty sumptuous), but its heart and humanity stands out too. It’s the same qualities that Evans has brought to his 7 year tenure in Sheffield, and this is his perfect farewell gift.
Flowers for Mrs Harris is on until 4th June 2016. Click here for tickets.