Charmingly and movingly told, Paul Gallico’s popular story is turned into musical theatre — with a lot of doors. As well as Jenna Russell’s touching performance and amazing voice for Mrs Harris, there is a whole host of Dior dresses and a moving sub-plot romance about ‘letting go’.
Mrs Harris (Jenna Russell) is a widow from the First World War grafting hard after World War Two. Her husband Albert is still around as a much loved ‘ghost’/memory, kindly and sweetly played by Hal Fowler — they still chat away. In all the grafting and dreariness, Mrs Harris begins to long for the impossible — beauty, a Princess dress, the New Look, haute couture. A Dior! How will she do it as a working class woman who has never travelled before or purchased couture fashion before?
With the help of the clients she cleans for and cunning ruses, and her friend Violet (Annie Wensak), Mrs Harris saves the money, gets the francs, books her ticket — and off she goes. But it isn’t easy as she has to navigate the language (much of the musical is now in French), cultural differences (couture fashion is exclusive slow fashion) and a whole new way of doing things.
Nonetheless kindness pays off and she gets to join the Dior collection reveal, select her dress and is even helped with somewhere to stay while she waits for the beautiful creation to be finished. Here it should end — she gets her dress, the end! But it doesn’t — Mrs Harris is kind again — with her dress — with disastrous consequences. Yet the kindness comes back to her as the whole stage is flooded with flowers from her new French friends and love — allowing her to let her husband go.
Unlike the film there is no replacement dress for the ruined original or romance with a friend. I feel like Mrs Harris in the musical has been cheated somehow — all the effort she put in to get a Dior dress, only to have it ruined by a feckless actress friend, Pamela (Charlotte Kennedy). In promoting fashion-house romance between André (Nathanael Campbell) and chocolate cake loving model Natasha (Charlotte Kennedy), Mrs Harris merely goes to Paris and doesn’t see a lot — skipping cafe and dinner dates and more. Be that as it may she has learnt wider life lessons — about being kind, standing up to classicism and class prejudice, not giving into social pressure to lie, in promoting kindness and romance, and seeing people. And she ends up surrounded in love and flowers and kindness — even the actress is repentant for her actions.
But the ruined Dior dress is a tragic object.
The songs aren’t memorable in themselves, but serve more as speak-singing to move the plot along. Stand-out numbers came from Nathanael Campbell’s Bob/André belting out his love for Pamela/Natasha, popping in and out of doors and Charlotte Kennedy’s Natasha dreaming of chocolate cake and her home town. The power of the score came more through the staging as at points all the characters are singing, and character is expressed through song — such as Pamela’s permanent state of haranguing and hysterical words as she lurches from one stagey crisis to another. Moreover, it is Jenna Russell’s central performance which carries the whole thing along. We really feel for her as she encounters class snobbery and rudeness or a hilariously brusque French cleaning lady, Violet (Annie Wensak) and get caught up in her love of the beautiful — such as a flower.
At Riverside Studios the stage could have done with being raised up more as a fairly flat staging made it hard to see characters at points. Strangely the nearer the front you were, potentially the less you saw. Thankfully when it was time to parade the Dior, a set of steps was used to to show off the full glory of the mannequins.
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