Harold and Maude (Charing Cross Theatre)

Harold and Maude (Charing Cross Theatre, until March 31st 2018)

A cult movie from the 1970s about an unconventional relationship that defies generational stereotypes 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 an eleborate 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 the world 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. Maude’s salutary life lessons are all born out of experience, but each has helped her to grow stronger and more defiant – all strengths of non-conformist character that one feels she is keen to pass on to a new generation.

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. Southerland has scored so many musical successes here at Charing Cross Theatre that you cannot help but think he was itching to turn this into a musical too – perhaps that’s what comes next as it could certainly work.

Sheila Hancock glows and sparkles as Maude, injecting both a lively frivolity and sad gravitas into a luminescent performance that fizzes like a never-ending firework. Her outlook on life is of lighting the blue touchpaper and never retiring, never wanting to be trapped by convention. 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 solitary 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 shriek, “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. Samuel Townsend deserves mention for effortlessly switching from the stern cop to the honking seal, which of course Maude has “liberated” from the zoo and is keeping in a bathtub.

Harold and Maude has always had a touch of existential angst at its core, but this new beautifully bonkers 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.

David Guest

Image: Darren Bell


A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub