Harold and Maude
Charing Cross Theatre
Reviewed – 26th February 2018
“Southerland’s presentation remains faithful to the original while adding a few eccentric touches of his own that enhance the narrative”
You know the comedy is going to be black when the play opens with the young lead placing a noose around his neck and hanging himself. His mother’s reaction to finding him suspended is shockingly hilarious, and I imagine more so if you are not already familiar with the original seventies cult film.
Incorporating dark humour and existential drama, “Harold and Maude” revolves around the relationship between the young, morbid Harold and the carefree, septuagenarian Maude whose outlook on life takes quirkiness to a whole new level. Through Maude’s influence, Harold loses his obsession with death and embraces life.
Written by the late Colin Higgins, who also wrote the screenplay in the early seventies, Thom Southerland’s presentation remains faithful to the original while adding a few eccentric touches of his own that enhance the narrative, steering it well clear of whimsicality. There are shades of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Amelie” in Southerland’s direction and, with Francis O’Connor’s primary coloured set, the surrealism is set in stone, giving us license to enjoy and find humour in the characters’ psychotic tendencies.
Sheila Hancock is charismatic, effervescent and totally mischievous as Maude. She sweeps the audience along in the wake of her comically carefree truisms, yet, in the later scenes hints at a sadness that simmers just below the surface. The energy of her onstage presence would shame many an actor half her age. Except Bill Milner, of course, who has the unenviable task of winning over the audience as Harold. But he does this with ease, convincingly portraying his journey from morose alienation towards self-realisation. It is a touching performance and consequently we find that his fondness for a woman sixty years his senior does not seem unhealthy. The attraction is romantic, yes, but not physical which heightens the tenderness. “The main thing in life is not to be afraid to be human” Maude tells him. Disarmingly she follows this up with the assertion that “over time clichés become profundities, and vice versa”. It is this self-deprecation in the writing that thwarts any accusations of mawkishness.
But the two leads do not monopolise the show. The ensemble cast, who rarely leave the stage throughout the evening, all add sparkle. Rebecca Caine is tremendous as Harold’s domineering mother who has decided that it is time for him to get married. Enrolling him into a dating agency gives extra comedy mileage when we are introduced to Harold’s prospective dates – all played with show-stealing versatility by Joanna Hickman.
The icing on the cake is the live music, scored by Michael Bruce. When not directly involved in the scenes the actors are underscoring the dialogue or deftly linking the scenes; on clarinet, cello, double bass, piano, accordion, guitar and banjo. There is a wonderful moment, too, when the cello replicates the manic voice on the other end of a telephone line. It’s these little touches that add to the magic, such as costume designer Jonathan Lipman’s decision to dress Harold and his shrink in identical jacket and tie.
The humour is matched by the compassion. In the second act when it shifts from surrealism to realism the final dialogue between Harold and Maude is both moving and life affirming. The resounding message is exemplified by Maude’s provoking question: “Are you going to do it or are you only going to hear about it second hand?”
I’d urge you to see this production. Don’t be content with just hearing about it second hand.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Darren Bell
Harold and Maude
Charing Cross Theatre until 31st March