BIG INTERVIEW Flowers For Mrs Harris: ‘I have never cried before at a read-through, but I did with this’

Clare Burt as Ada Harris and Laura Pitt-Pulford as Pamela in Flowers for Mrs Harris at Chichester Festival Theatre. Picture by Johan Persson
Clare Burt as Ada Harris and Laura Pitt-Pulford as Pamela in Flowers for Mrs Harris at Chichester Festival Theatre. Picture by Johan Persson

Gary Wilmot says he wishes he had the concession for the Kleenex stall in the foyer at Chichester Festival Theatre.

You can expect plenty of emotion in Flowers For Mrs Harris – a new musical based on the novel by Paul Gallico – in which he is currently starring.

Members of the company in FLOWERS FOR MRS HARRIS at Chichester Festival Theatre, September 2018. Picture by Johan Persson

Members of the company in FLOWERS FOR MRS HARRIS at Chichester Festival Theatre, September 2018. Picture by Johan Persson

‘I wasn’t involved in the original production in Sheffield, but I heard great reports about it, and then they asked if I would like to audition for it, and really at this stage in my career, I just want to be involved in good-quality work… and this is right up there!

‘The quality of the performances in the show are better than anything I have ever seen, and Clare Burt as Mrs Harris is just an extraordinary performance in every way. She has got a huge, huge job, but she is also just the most delightful person… and an amazing performer.

‘And the whole thing really is just the most moving piece of work. Rachel Wagstaff and Richard Taylor who wrote it have done an incredible job. I don’t know how they knew how to put those words and those emotions together with those chords. I have never cried before at a read-through, but I did with this – and in rehearsals.’

The piece offers 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. From the cobbled streets of post-war London to the shimmering avenues of Paris, Ada transforms the lives of everyone she meets along the way…

‘I heard (director) Daniel (Evans) talking about her as being a woman who thinks she is ordinary, but she absolutely isn’t. She is extraordinary in ways she just doesn’t know. It’s the way she cares for people and is so kindly. It is set in a period that has gone, the way people used to look after everybody. But it is the effect she has on people. She does not set out to change them, but she does. It is a wonderful role. I have enjoyed the film many times before, but the film had a slightly-different approach.

‘For the music, I have heard the word Sondheim mentioned a couple of times, but the ballads and the passion and the more flamboyant pieces are absolutely amazing. It is not opera. Every song is just beautifully crafted. My fingers are crossed that the audience is going to love it, and I have dealt with audiences for a long, long time. I really don’t see why they won’t love it, but it’s something that is impossible to say. It is that missing element. You go into the rehearsal room with your box of tricks, but you just don’t know until you put it in front of an audience.’

Gary is playing a number of roles in the piece, principally the major: ‘He is a cantankerous old man! Obviously, I am playing against type, but people do think of, yes, the old smiley Gary Wilmot… but I have actually done roles like this before, maybe in the lesser productions.’

Gary is joined in the cast by Laura Pitt-Pulford playing two characters who almost complete their own circle.

‘In the first half I play a girl called Pamela who is a wannabe actress,’ Laura says. 'She is based in London and she is one of the clients that Mrs Harris cleans for, and she is very needy towards Mrs Harris. She is quite eccentric. She just wants to be loved and adored, and she needs Mrs Harris to make her feel that she has worth – and Mrs Harris does this unknowingly for her.

‘She is not maybe the nicest of the characters, but she has heart. It is just that it is hidden within her own insecurities. She reminds me a bit of a version of my teenage self, a much more heightened teenage version, that stroppy thing of going from one emotion to another!

‘The other character I am playing is called Natasha and she is in Paris. She is the top model at Christian Dior, and she very much her own person, but she just wants to be normal.’

Natasha has got the fame and the adulation that Pamela longs for, but really it is Pamela’s normal life that she craves: ‘The two characters kind of mirror each other.’

And the pleasure for Laura – on her Chichester debut – is that they are two proper, meaty characters: ‘The writers have given every single character in this piece a proper arc to play. It is a fun challenge.’

Laura was in director Daniel’s production in Sheffield a couple of years ago: ‘It was a full production, but since then there have been some changes made. There was a workshop on it last year, and they changed a few things, not so much anything that an audience would necessarily notice, but some of the characters are slightly changed so that they have become even more three-dimensional than they already were.

‘It is great to be creating a role because you get to put your own stamp on the character and you aren’t thinking: “I wonder if they are all comparing me to someone else!” When you are creating a character, you have to use a lot more of your own imagination. You are creating the experience every day. That’s why people like to be able to say that you are originating a role.’

Inevitably it is a different relationship with the director when you are putting together a new show: ‘Neither of you knows what it actually is yet, what it is that you are creating. And that is a bit part of the fun and the challenge.’

Flowers For Mrs Harris is on now until September 29 at Chichester Festival Theatre. Go to cft.org.uk.