A musical summer at Chichester Festival Theatre

From the Cockney streets of London to the world of Parisian haute couture might seem a stretch – but for Chichester Festival Theatre’s Artistic Director, Daniel Evans, it’s all in a day’s work this summer as he directs two musicals: the 1930s classic, Me And My Girl, which is playing until 25 August with a cast headed by Matt Lucas and Caroline Quentin; and a new work, Flowers For Mrs Harris, which runs from 8 – 29 September.

Last year’s productions of Fidder On The Roof (also directed by Daniel) and Caroline, Or Change continued Chichester’s outstanding reputation for hit musicals, both classic and contemporary. While staging musicals on Chichester’s thrust stages necessarily calls for imaginative choreography and design, Daniel also attributes this remarkable success to the audience.

“They clearly love their musicals; they make them special”, he says. “Different kinds of audiences come from all over the world and all spheres of life, and that’s something we’re very proud of and I hope will continue.”

Both musicals contain immense amounts of joy

It’s hard to think of a greater contrast than the uproarious chorus numbers and high-tapping dances of Me And My Girl, and the emotional delicacy of Flowers For Mrs Harris. Based on a much-loved novella by Paul Gallico, it’s the story of a charlady in post-war London who glimpses a Christian Dior dress in one of her client’s wardrobes and scrimps and saves to go to Paris and buy one for herself.

“There are just ten actors in Flowers and it’s incredibly intimate”, Daniel agrees. “It’s about this ordinary cleaning lady, Ada Harris – at least, she thinks she’s ordinary – whose life is transformed by this major event. So it’s much more like a play, it just so happens that some of it is sung. Richard Taylor’s music is exquisite.”

Nevertheless, Daniel see parallels between the two shows: “Both Ada and Bill Snibson in Me And My Girl are from lowly backgrounds, and find themselves in more sophisticated surroundings. They turn their own worlds and the worlds of those people they encounter on the journey, upside down.

“And both musicals contain immense amounts of joy. In Me And My Girl the joy is readily expressed through amazing tap dancing and upbeat numbers. Mrs Harris is a different kind of joy because it’s the joy of seeing someone who’s intrinsically kind and good, achieving her heart’s desire. It’s quite rare because while she has to overcome many obstacles, the effect she has on the people around her is very moving because she isn’t aware that she does it.”

Flowers For Mrs Harris began life in Sheffield, where despite having only ten performances, it won three UK Theatre Awards including Best Musical. At Chichester, Clare Burt recreates her award-winning performance as Mrs Harris, and is joined in the company by musical theatre stars Joanna Riding and Gary Wilmot.

“There’s a famous Stephen Sondheim quote: ‘musicals aren’t written, they’re rewritten’”, Daniel laughs. “While that’s true of any musical, it’s truer when you’re birthing a musical. With Flowers, we’ve undergone many stages of development. Since the initial try-out of the production in Sheffield, the writers have gone back to amend sections in order to include the things that they learnt from those original ten performances.”

However, Daniel is trusting that the effect on audiences will be the same.

“You could hear people weeping for joy at the end. Ada has done something with her life; she’s followed her dream. It’s such a universal theme that everyone can probably connect with, wherever you’re from.”

To book, visit cft.org.uk or ring 01243 781312.

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