In full bloom

New musical Flowers for Mrs Harris premieres at the Crucible Sheffield this week. Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad reports.

ELEGY by Payne,         , Writer - Nick Payne, Director - Josie Rourke, Designer - Tom Scutt, Lighting - Paule Constable, The Donmar Warehouse, London, UK, 2016, Credit: Johan Persson/
ELEGY by Payne, , Writer - Nick Payne, Director - Josie Rourke, Designer - Tom Scutt, Lighting - Paule Constable, The Donmar Warehouse, London, UK, 2016, Credit: Johan Persson/

A room in a London rehearsal studio space. Daniel Evans is trying to get me to use my imagination.

“When we’re actually on stage in Sheffield that trolley will be a cupboard and where the other trolley is will be a kitchenette. The fork is standing in for a tea strainer,” says the artistic director of Sheffield Theatres.

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This is the unpolished glamour of the rehearsal room. Actors are wearing big boots and comfy trainers. The lead actor is in a long shirt and her hair is pulled away from her face in a ponytail.

The play is a new British musical called Flowers for Mrs Harris and Clare Burt plays our eponymous hero.

In this unglamorous room she starts singing. The song is a turning point in the story, where Mrs Harris realises, for the first time in her life, that she wants something, that she doesn’t have to live with her lot, play the hand she’s been dealt.

Burt forgets her lines halfway through the song and starts to hum an approximation. A fellow actor hands her a script. It is an absolutely beautiful performance and the song, heart-breaking. What it’s going to be like with the bells, whistles, a lead actor singing all the correct words in the correct order, an actual tea-strainer instead of a fork on the stage of the Crucible is anyone’s guess.

Upstairs in the rehearsal space lunch has been laid on and the actors, not known for turning down free lunches, sit around tables laid in a semi-circle, catching up on bits of gossip and talking about the rehearsal.

Imagine the sound of a school playground with mums and dads chatting at the gates and you’ll get the idea. Burt is quick to point out that Flowers for Mrs Harris is an ensemble piece.

“But you are on stage for all but two scenes,” says Laura Pitt-Pulford, who plays Pamela in the show. Burt is quick to add: “Yes, but the really great thing about it is that it’s a cast of six women and four men and the women are all over a certain age.”

Anna-Jane Casey, who plays Mrs Harris’s best friend shouts over: “Let’s just say that we can just about still see 40 in the rear-view mirror.”

It is an important point and Casey, who audiences at the Crucible will remember from her turn in Company the Christmas production in Sheffield 2011 (she’s difficult to forget), makes it well. There are few decent roles for women in their middle-age in theatre. New British musicals too, are like hen’s teeth. All in all, Flowers for Mrs Harris is an exception in many different ways.

Based on the novel by Paul Gallico, the stage adaptation is set in London in 1947. Mrs Harris is a cleaner who wants for nothing. That’s not to say she’s privileged, just that desire is something for other people, not for Mrs Harris. When she comes across a Christian Dior-designed dress while cleaning the house of Rebecca Caine’s Lady Dant, everything changes for Ada Harris.

The short extract performed in rehearsals when I paid a visit to the cast in London is the moment she comes across the dress. Even with forks standing in for tea strainers and trolleys for cupboards, it was genuinely moving. Written by Richard Taylor and Rachel Wagstaff, audiences in Yorkshire will be familiar with the work of Taylor – he’s worked extensively at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, where his musical of The Go-Between, soon to be seen in the West End, premiered.

Wagstaff’s work has also been on the stage of the Playhouse – she adapted Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong for the stage. We have her, via an independent producer, to thank for the stage musical of Flowers for Mrs Harris. “Vicky Graham approached me after seeing Birdsong. She’d read and loved the book as a child and wanted to turn it into a stage production,” says Wagstaff. “We got on really well and had some very similar ideas about the book, then there came a point when she asked me what I thought about music for the play. I paused, thought about it and then thought ‘oh no, I’m about to says this’ and then I found myself saying ‘I think it should be a musical’. The problem with saying that was that they’re very expensive, they never happen, they take years and years and if they do get off the ground, as the writer you only get half the fee. In an instant of saying it should be a musical, it had gone from being a play that might be relatively easy to get made to suddenly being a mammoth task. Rather than look horrified, Vicky said ‘yes, I’d been wondering the same’. “So we recomposed our brains and started thinking of it as a musical.”

The extraordinary thing is that the conversation Wagstaff describes happened just three years ago. That is a ridiculous timetable. It helps, Wagstaff admits, that Daniel Evans came on board. The man in charge of Sheffield Theatres, for now, Evans is able to Get Things Done. Including a new British musical.

Flowers for Mrs Harris will, it turns out, be the last thing that Evans directs in Sheffield, before he moves on to take charge of Chichester Festival Theatre later this summer. He’s picked a good show and a good, passionate team for his swansong.

The cast are still buzzing around, lingering over their lunch, chatting away and Wagstaff describes the passion she has for writing this show, something which is reflected in everyone around her. “It’s a bit like being in love. It’s all consuming, it keeps you awake at night – although in a brilliant way and you want to talk about it all the time.”

Once it premieres in Sheffield, I think a lot of us will be talking about Flowers for Mrs Harris.

Flowers for Mrs Harris is based on the 1958 novel Mrs ’Arris Goes to Paris, written by the renowned sportswriter and novelist Paul Gallico.

The book was an international hit and spawned a further three titles Mrs ’Arris Goes to New York, Mrs ’Arris Goes to Parliament and Mrs ’Arris Goes to Moscow. The novel was adapted for a 1992 American television movie starring Angela Lansbury, Diana Rigg, and Omar Sharif and directed by Lansbury’s son, Anthony Shaw.

Flowers for Mrs Harris, Sheffield Crucible, May 19-June 4. Tickets 0114 2496000.