Chichester: Joanna Riding and the art of discovering what really matters...

Joanna Riding and Louis Maskell. Photo by Johan Persson
Joanna Riding and Louis Maskell. Photo by Johan Persson

Amid loss and loneliness, Flowers For Mrs Harris – a new musical based on the novel by Paul Gallico – sees the characters find what truly matters.

Starring Clare Burt, Joanna Riding and Gary Wilmot, it is on the Chichester Festival Theatre main-house stage from September 8-29, the tale of Ada Harris who spends her days dusting, darning, polishing and scrubbing. But when Ada glimpses a ravishing Christian Dior dress, she sets off on a journey that will change her life forever...

Joanna, who plays Lady Dant in the first half and Madame Colbert in the second, is delighted to return to Chichester after success in The Pajama Game five years ago in the Minerva.

“Daniel (Evans, director) and Rachel Wagstaff and Richard Taylor who wrote it have been working on it for years. When Daniel was up in Sheffield, he put the show on for a few weeks to test the waters. He was been working away, beavering away at it, fine-tuning it for many years, and I think that is how you have got to do new musicals, to see how they can work… so it has been a long project, a long time in the making. But it is a testament to Daniel’s confidence in the piece at this stage that he is putting it on in the main house.

“It is such a beautiful story. It is set just after the Second World War, and it revolves around Mrs Harris who is a London charlady. She is lonely.

“There is a void in her life, and then she comes across this beautiful Christian Dior dress, the like of which she has never seen before. She has never seen anything so beautiful. She makes this crazy decision that she absolutely has to have a Dior dress.

“She comes across the dress when she is cleaning for Lady Dant who I play, and she saves and saves for two and a half years and ends up in Paris. The first half is in London and the second half is in Paris until at the very end she comes back with the dress. But what she realises is that the journey has never been about the dress. It is about doing something to fill the black hole that was the loneliness in her life. There is a lot of loneliness and loss in her life. Many of the characters are dealing with loss. There was so much loss just after the war.

“But Mrs Harris is a remarkable character. She has always appreciated beautiful things. She really gets them. She really appreciates them. She also loves flowers. She has got to have flowers in her house – a real appreciation of beautiful things. These were rationing times and austere times, and somebody like Dior was quite controversial, creating these beautiful gowns, these incredibly-extravagant dresses.

“But he came out and said that we need to have beautiful things in order to feel good again. We have got to be allowed to enjoy beautiful things in our lives.”

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