Writer: Colin Higgins
Director: Thom Southerland
Reviewer: David Guest
A cult movie from the 1970s about an unconventional relationship hits the London stage nearly 40 years on in a way that is wacky, wonderful and warming.
Thom Southerland’s quirky and charming version of Harold and Maude fits the Charing Cross Theatre like a glove, with Francis O’Connor’s neo-Cubist set and Jonathan Lipman’s colour-splashed costumes a splendid contrast to the dark humour and idiosyncratic story.
The unlikely duo at the play’s centre are Harold, a 19-year-old obsessed with death, going to funerals and staging his own fake suicides in a way which combines a desire to shock, teenage attention-seeking and boredom with life, and Maude, an eccentric but lovable Austrian countess with an outlook on life that is carefree and outlandish.
They meet at a stranger’s funeral and the play charts their friendship to the point where Harold decides he would rather have Maude as a life companion than the girls provided by his socialite mother via computer dating. Along the way both characters grow through a series of shared life lessons and bizarre misdemeanours, breaking down boundaries of age and society norms.
Colin Higgins adapted his own screenplay for the stage not long after the film’s 1971 debut, so the essence of the big screen original is never far away, but Southerland has given the script some subtle tweaks so that the relationship between the odd couple never comes across as salacious, rather a meeting of two like-minded souls in search of meaning.
Sheila Hancock glows and sparkles as Maude, injecting both a lively frivolity and sad gravitas into a performance that fizzes like a never-ending firework. This is an actress who one suspects chooses her roles carefully and thoughtfully, and here she is mesmerising, finding both the darker shadows of Maude’s past and the joy of an upbeat approach to whatever life throws at her with astounding energy.
Bill Milner’s Harold is the perfect companion, a young man trying to express himself through increasingly shocking actions, yet never fully able to overcome repressed emotions until in the company of the woman 60 years his senior. It is a well-judged performance, mixing a shy awkwardness with a blossoming lust for life.
Rebecca Caine is hilarious as Harold’s outrageous silk stocking mother, who time has made oblivious to her son’s over the top attention seeking. To one fake suicide attempt she can only declare, “Harold! Not in the daffodils!”
There is a glorious touch of the absurd in that the other performers are mostly on stage throughout, when not playing their roles (Johnson Willis is a wonderfully bemused Father Finnegan and Joanna Hickman excellent as Harold’s would-be dates) taking up various instruments to play off the wall pieces by composer Michael Bruce. There’s a wonderful moment when a cello provides the anonymous voice at the end of a telephone.
Harold and Maude has always had a touch of existential angst at its core, but this new production demands nothing more of its audiences than to assess life, living and values in the context of the rich diversity of those around you.
Runs until: 31 March 2018 | Image: Darren Bell