Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Harold and Maude @ The Charing Cross Theatre

Harold and Maude @ The Charing Cross Theatre

Back in 2016, director Thom Southerland brought the kooky curio Grey Gardens to the Southwark Playhouse, a revival of the Tony award winning musical (based on the 1975 documentary of the same name) and starring Sheila Hancock. Two years later and he’s bringing another 70s cult piece to the stage, this time Colin Higgins’ Harold and Maude at the Charing Cross Theatre and again starring Sheila Hancock.

Higgins’ 1971 film flopped at the box office, but found a second life on the stage in a 1974 adaptation that has since been regularly revived. In this new production, Southerland doesn’t quite bring new relevance, but it’s nevertheless a sweet play that remains of its time.

Its surreal comedy is amplified by Francis O’Connor’s set design, all abstract angles and meticulously placed objects. A bright clouded sky is revealed through the peeled back ceiling. The stage is littered with musical instruments. A pair of shoes sit centre stage. A noose hangs ominously above them.

That noose suggests the play’s ambitious central theme: life and death. The titular couple are teenager Harold and the elderly Maude who strike up an unlikely romance. He is obsessive about death, frequently performing mock suicides with guns, knives, fire and more. She has lived a full life, never saying no to new adventures. Of all places, they first meet at a funeral, connected through life and death. And over the course of the play, Maude opens Harold’s eyes to a life of fun, a life away from his overbearing mother who fusses over potential dates in a series of hilarious episodes.

It’s a whimsical plot that thrives on the success of its central performances. Hancock plays Maude with girlish glee, frail and delicate on the outside but radiating inner strength – even if the script is a little too “new age hippy”. As Harold, Bill Milner exudes a certain Timothée Chalamet quality: quietly brooding yet precociously eccentric, a boy who becomes a man before our eyes.

And as for the musical instruments on the stage, the actor-musician ensemble bring warmth to the production. Maude’s vivaciousness is symbolised by music, so including music (from composer Michael Bruce) on-stage is a smart move. More than just underscore, it adds character to the piece, with ingenious little touches: a cello used for a voice at the end of the phone line, or singing morphing into a police siren. The ensemble actors bring plenty of comedy too, from Joanna Hickman’s hilarious overacting as multiple dates, to Samuel Townsend’s Sergeant Dopple who doubles as a seal.

Some dodgy American accents aside, Harold and Maude is a faintly absurd but heart-warming comedy, whose titular relationship has some genuinely touching moments.


Watch: Harold and Maude runs at the Charing Cross Theatre until March 31st.

Harold and Maude @ The Charing Cross Theatre
Photo: Darren Bell