Flowers for Mrs Harris review – Riverside Studios

Image above: Flowers for Mrs Harris, Riverside Studios; L to R Charlotte Kennedy, Pippa Winslow, Abigail Williams, Jenna Russell, Harry Singh, Kelly Price, Issy Khogali, Nathaniel Campbell

Review by Simon Thomsett

If you are able readily to accept that a flawlessly generous and kind widow, struggling to get by as a cleaner in ’50’s London, can find meaning in life in the form of a Christian Dior dress, even to the point of being ready to sell the last tangible memento of her late husband to acquire said item, then Flowers for Mrs Harris, the new show at Riverside Studios may be for you.

Having been dazzled by a client’s dress, Mrs Harris sets out to acquire one of her own, whatever it takes. Reasoning that it would be “something to come home to” now that her beloved husband Albert has passed, she sets about working hard and going without to save up the necessary cash.

When the cost goes up, her determination isn’t thrown off course, she simply revises her plan and keeps going, cleaning and fixing things, “shirt by shirt, shawl by shawl…” and gradually works toward her goal, to travel to Paris and make the longed for purchase.  Along the way there are setbacks and dilemmas, but Ada, with old fashioned grit is resolute (of course she is) and refuses to give in.

Image above: Hal Fowler and Jenna Russell

Jenna Russell’s performance as Ada Harris is a powerful fulcrum, drawing other characters in and out of her quietly controlled world, in which she is pursuing her single-minded obsession. As the ghostly presence of Albert, Hal Fowler matches her and their scenes together are warmly believable.

Her closest friend, Violet is played with gusto by Annie Wensak, even if her part occasionally falls into cliched char lady territory. Indeed, the whole ensemble, all of whom bar Russell, double up convincingly and are in good voice, their sung parts coming across with clarity.

Image above: Annie Wensak (left) and Jenna Russell (right)

Musically, the score is undemonstrative, but delicate and easy on the ear.  The sound design is first class although the decision to hide away the small band seems a little bit of a shame.

Nik Corrall’s set is an impressionistic amalgam of house fronts with a central revolving section, one side of which contains Ada’s kitchen where most of her domestic drama unfolds.

Image above: L to R Abigail Williams, Hal Fowler, Jenna Russell, Harry Singh, Issy Khogali  

It is strangely drab for a wish fulfilment musical, but additional detail in the form of the dresses on show during Ada’s Parisian  trip and the famous flowers themselves add welcome splashes of colour.

Overall, although there are moments that threaten to drift too far into a condescending view of its working class characters, Jenna Russell’s central performance holds it all together as it moves towards a satisfying, if perhaps a rather saccharine conclusion.

Images above: Charlotte Kennedy; Nathaniel Campbell; Charlotte Kennedy

Photographs by Pamela Raith.

Flowers for Mrs Harris, the musical by Richard Taylor and Rachel Wagstaff based on the book by Paul Gallico, is on at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith from Tuesday 10 October until Saturday 25 November. Directed by Bronagh Lagan, Musical Director  Jonathan Gill.

Book tickets: Flowers for Mrs Harris

Simon Thomsett

Simon Thomsett has worked in the professional theatre for a number of years. He started out as a stage manager and technician then became a venue director and producer, notably at the Hackney Empire, Fairfield Halls and most recently the New Victoria Theatre in Woking.

Since leaving full time work last year, he is now working as a consultant and on some small scale producing projects. He is a Chiswick resident and a passionate advocate for great theatre.