Review: Harold and Maude
Bill Milner and Sheila Hancock - photo by Darren Bell
Sheila Hancock - Maude (until 31 March)
Bill Milner - Harold (until 31 March)
Linda Marlowe - Maude (from 2 April)
Patrick Walshe McBride - Harold (from 2 April)
Anthony Cable - Gardener / Inspector Bernard
Rebecca Caine - Mrs Chasen
Christopher Dickins - Dr Matthews
Joanna Hickman - Multiple dates
Samuel Townsend - Sergeant Dopple
Anne White - Marie
Johnson Willis - Father Finnegan
Harold and Maude is an idiosyncratic romantic fable told though the eyes of the most unlikely pairing: a compulsive, self-destructive young man and a devil-may-care, septuagenarian bohemian.
Dame Marjorie "Maude" Chardin (Sheila Hancock), is a free spirit who wears her hair in braids, believes in living each day to its fullest, and "trying something new every day".
Harold Parker Chasen is an 18-year-old man who is obsessed with death, attends funerals of strangers for entertainment and stages elaborate fake suicides.
Through meeting Maude at a funeral, he discovers joy in living for the first time.
Part dark comedy and romantic innocence, Harold and Maude dissolves the line between darkness and light along with ones that separate people by class, gender and age.
Sheila Hancock makes a welcome return to the London stage in this somewhat dark, but gently comedic tale of romance between unlikely partners from Colin Higgins, which has its origins in the film of 1971.
Almost 50 years old, then, you'd be forgiven for considering that this play's best days might be over - or, at least, that the dawn of a new millennium since its conception might have rendered some of its issues rather redundant.
It doesn't turn out like that, though, because what the play seems to describe is finding an approach to life in order to obtain happiness and fulfilment through exposure to new experiences and finding joy in almost anything and everything.
That makes for a relatively timeless subject for consideration.
In Thom Southerland's directorial hands Mr Higgins' work becomes a play with music featuring a talented ensemble of actor-musicians armed with cello, double bass, clarinet and the like which gives the production a significant lift, especially thanks to gentle and tender music from composer Michael Bruce.
It would spoil the surprise to reveal much about the start of the show, but it's strikingly effective and is suitably bookended with the denouement which is similarly unexpected and as surprising.
The focus of the play falls on Harold Chasen, a nineteen year-old who seems obsessed with death, shown in his frequent efforts to simulate his own demise and attending funerals of people he doesn't know.
He's a singular, diffident young man, something of an odd-ball.
So much so that his pestering mother (wonderfully played by Rebecca Caine) enlists the help of the doctor to find a cure for Harold's problems, and finally resorts to a dating agency to find a suitable girl for the boy to wed.
But while attending a funeral, Harold meets the equally odd-ball, 79 year-old Maude who opens his eyes to her unendingly rosy view of life, art, the universe, God and everything.
In many ways her seemingly innocuous attitudes hark back to the hippy days of peace and love.
At times, what she conveys in her behaviour and declarations borders on the sickeningly tiresome with her unerring positivity about the dear dickie-birds, hapless trees getting asthma, and her love of producing (unexceptional) art.
But dig under the surface a little and there may well be more to discover in Colin Higgins' play.
Viewed from a different angle, Sheila Hancock's Maude is not so endearingly charming and nice but a self-centred subversive, caring nothing for other people's property or the wider community in which she lives, residing in a house she has 'borrowed', furnished with goods she hasn't paid for and stealing cars.
And, ultimately, she cares nothing for her protégé Harold either, in the end focusing unswervingly on her own desires without much of a thought for his feelings.
That dichotomy between Maude's apparent loving, caring demeanour and the selfish side of her nature may well be the covert approach in Thom Southerland's considered production - but it's not crystal clear, and maybe I'm looking for more in the play than is really there, though the ending definitely seems to point-up something rather more questionable about Ms Hancock's Maude.
Mr Southerland injects neatly-devised additional humour into the piece beyond the basic contrivances of suicidal attempts in the plot - for example, a cello is neatly used as the unseen voice on the distant end of the telephone.
However, in spite of the inventiveness of these humorous elements, there are no really big laugh-out-loud moments, and the overall pace feels somewhat restrained even sedate, lacking in some more vigorous and tense moments, or what could be termed 'oomph', to really draw us in to events.
Links and related content
ActDrop listing for Charing Cross Theatre
Our show listing for Harold and Maude
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