Sheffield theatre musical blooms on stage

Mark Meadows and Clare Burt in Flowers for Mrs Harris
Mark Meadows and Clare Burt in Flowers for Mrs Harris
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Writer Rachel Wagstaff is well known for her stage adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ wartime drama Birdsong but her new show Sheffield is a much more upbeat affair.

The story for new Crucible Theatre musical Flowers for Mrs Harris is taken from a novel by Paul Gallico.

Ada Harris, a cleaner in post-war London, is left breathless by a Dior dress she sees in a rich client’s wardrobe. She saves hard and heads to Dior in Paris to realise her dream of having a couture dress, beginning an adventure that transforms the lives of those she meets.

Given the storyline, the show could easily be too sentimental. Rachel said: “I think we’ve managed to avoid that. We hope it’s a very enjoyable ride as well.”

The journey to get Mrs Harris to the stage has been an enjoyable ride for Rachel herself.

She said: “I was first brought to it by the producer Vicky Graham, who first had the idea to adapt it. She thought I might be the right sort of person to do it.

“I loved Paul Gallico as a child and went back and read the book. It is so beautiful and so moving and such a lovely story, with such rich characters and so much heart.

“I fell in love with it and was desperate to do it. I thought, ‘oh God, this should be a musical. It has to be a musical’ but when I met Vicky I didn’t dare mention it to her. They are so much more expensive and much harder to get right.”

They both realised there was no other way go.

Vicky got Rachel working with composer Richard Taylor, who lives in Sheffield.

They shuttled between Sheffield and Croydon, where she lives, working scene by scene.

Later in the process, Daniel Evans came on board as director.

Rachel said: “He is such a clever, inspiring and insightful man. We bounced ideas around between the three of us and that really lifted it.”

Rachel is thrilled by what Daniel, the cast and production team have created: “It is a challenge to adapt something that already exists in one form, re-creating it in some entirely different form and still stay true to what it was. I couldn’t be happier with what the result is.”

Rachel saidof Birdsong: “Everyone said it couldn’t be done, then we did it. Then they did it again and again!

“Sebastian Faulks asked me to adapt two more things with him. We have a very good working relationship. I’m lucky to have worked with such a talented and brilliant storyteller.”

Takes one to know one…

Flowers for Mrs Harris is at the Crucible until June 4. Box office: 0114 249 6000 or www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk

Review:

What’s the luxury that you would scrimp and scrape for years to buy?

For cleaning lady Ada Harris, working in drab 1950s London, a beautiful Christian Dior dress seen in a rich client’s wardrobe fills her heart with such joy that she’s determined to scrape together the money to buy one on a trip to Paris.

What follows is a frothy confection, beautifully made and full of colour.

Clare Burt, fully deserving a standing ovation on press night, is a joy as Mrs Harris, a woman whose sharp eye for smoothing along human relationships makes a difference to everyone around her.

She can cheer up neurotic best friend Violet (a great role for Anna-Jane Casey), cope with annoying clients and do a spot of match-making for Dior model Natasha and uptight fashion house accountant Andre. The chemistry between lovers Louis Maskell and Laura Pitt-Pulford is a delight.

Backstage must be chaos as much of the cast play multiple roles in London and Paris scenes. Some actors, such as Mark Meadows, are so clever that it took a glance at the cast list to work out who’s who.

Daniel Evans’ direction has everything cracking along, the singing is lovely and Lez Brotherston’s minimalist design works well.

However, I was left a bit flat by the first half but thought the show came together after the interval. The finale was heartwarming and uplifting.