A HEART FOR BEAUTY, A ‘FIFTIES DREAM
If Daniel Evans means to leave his acclaimed stewardship of Sheffield Theatre on a flood of tears, he’s chosen the right production for his directorial finale. There were definitely Kleenexes involved. Paul Gallico’s novella was an outlet for a bruised postwar nation, yearning over its clothes-ration coupons for the “ideal of civilized happiness” epitomized by the extravagant ballgowns of the New Look. A widowed charlady is content with her humble lot until she sees, in a rich client’s wardrobe, the marvel that is a Dior dress. She yearns to own one – “to come home to, not to wear”. Inspired by a small pools win, she trebles it with years of slaving, scrimping and squirrelling, and travels naive but determined to Paris.
Where – like the poor-but-honest heroine of a fairytale – she wins all hearts, comforts the also-widowed vendeuse and solves a brittle romantic impasse (fairytale again: top model and shy accountant = Princess and swineherd). Having known the book in childhood I feared a saccharine tone in this premiere from Richard Taylor (music and lyrics) and Rachel Wagstaff . Gallico is an unfashionably brutal plucker of heartstrings, and his “Mrs ‘Arris” sequels are best avoided. Evans, however, steers a canny course: the most notable evidence of this being that Gallico’s Battersea char heroine is patronizingly given heavy Cockney ‘aitches and a “naughty twinkle” in her plebeian eye. Whereas Clare Burt, in this production, emanates credible dignity and palpable sense as well as her yearning. Roll on a few years and she would be one of the ‘60s working-class heroines leading council revolts in sink estates. Her Passchendaele widowhood hits home, touchingly evoked in conversations with the dead husband, who wanders around as a ghost advising her on her pools boxes. And comedy is never far off; Anna-Jane Casey is a right caution as her friend Violet, and so is the revolving ring of demanding clients: naughty major, eccentric Russian emigrée, selfish soubrette, accountant dreaming of being a photographer.
There’s a lively energy from the start: the score, never particularly interesting or catchy, gives point and vigour to patter lyrics (some of which I would have liked to hear better). The scrimping has unnerving pathos: who, today, saves as the ‘50s women did? And there is a moment of real truthful seriousness when Ida Harris sees the client’s (invisible) Dior dress , alone under a spotlight, confronting high art with “It’s like I’ve found a piece of me”. Burt evokes a hunger for beauty which throbs across the still-grey stage, and shines on from beneath her threadbare cardigan even when she gets to snooty, incomprehensible, unwelcoming Paris. So before long even they must speak democracy: “If something is beautiful, it’s beautiful for anyone, no matter who you are”. A proper echo from the founding days of the Arts Council…
Paris is a riot: rose-pink and dramatic, with a dazzling procession of eight Dior New Look dresses: silk and tulle, petals upon petals, crystals on crystals, worn with hauteur by immaculate girls with tiny waists and proper hips. A dream of serene perfection, Lez Brotherston’s designs channel Dior beautifully and are ,I suspect, being eyed up gloatingly by every female on the crew. Mark Meadows is a glorious Chevalier-esque Marquis, naturally doubling as the husband’s earlier ghost; Laura Pitt-Pulford transforms from the ghastly soubrette to an enchanting Parisienne model , with Louis Maskell geekishly adoring as André. And – no spoilers for non-readers – the dénouement is seriously floral.
So me, I loved it. And note that it needs a good provincial producing-theatre to have the nerve to do this with so much style: a middle-aged charlady heroine in a brown cardi and faded print, a story dominated by women, an untried musical of an unfashionable ‘50s book, and no megastars… But it works. I have the soggy Kleenex to prove it.
box office 0114 249 6000 to 4 June