Gary Wilmot in Flowers For Mrs Harris at Chichester Festival Theatre

Gary Wilmot

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 stars (September 8-29).

“I wasn’t involved in the original production in Sheffield, but I was up there doing a show, and unfortunately I wasn’t able to get to see it.

“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. 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.”

The icing on the cake is working with director Daniel: “I have worked with many directors of musical theatre, but not many that have really got a handle on musical theatre. The reason that you get good actors is because you want them to contribute. That does not mean just dictating to them, but there is an awful lot of that in musical theatre. But the great thing is that you are never belittled for making suggestions to Daniel. And even if he doesn’t like what you suggest, he will explain to you why he doesn’t think it will work. There is a great feeling in the company.”

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