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Harold and Maude review at Charing Cross Theatre, London – ‘a tame, if amiable, staging’

Bill Milner and Sheila-Hancock in Harold and Maude at Charing Cross Theatre, London. Photo: Darren Bell Bill Milner and Sheila-Hancock in Harold and Maude at Charing Cross Theatre, London. Photo: Darren Bell

Though it has cult status now, Hal Ashby’s film about the unconventional relationship between a teenage boy and a 79-year-old woman met with middling reviews on its original 1971 release,

It is a remarkably odd movie really – whimsical, uplifting, messy, and provocative.  Thom Southerland uses Colin Higgins’ 1974 stage adaptation of his screenplay as the basis for an occasionally charming, if much tamer staging.

Eighteen year old Harold Chasen (Bill Milner) is obsessed with death. When not attending funerals, he devotes much of his time to staging his own demise. He constructs macabre scenarios, miniature plays in which he hangs himself or severs body parts. His socialite mother is so accustomed to coming across his bespattered body that she barely blinks anymore. Instead she decides what Harold needs in his life is a girl, so sets him up on a series of dates, not realising that Harold has become entranced by Maude (Sheila Hancock), a woman nearing her 80th birthday.

Maude believes in experiencing one new thing every day and is not one for following society’s rules. She gets a kick out of teasing policemen, doesn’t hold with ideas of ownership and enjoys ‘liberating’ things: be they trees or cars, or even a seal from the local zoo.

The character of Maude could easily come across as a septuagenarian manic pixie dream girl – little more than a collection of eccentricities – but Hancock brings a playful effervescence to the role. Her Maude resembles Miss Marple at her most mischievous, if Miss Marple was given to wearing sunflower yellow clogs and had a hookah habit. Her delivery also brings to mind Carol Kane’s delicious turn in Scrooged.

Milner is similarly effective, and suitably youthful, in a more reactive role. He seems shocked by Maude at first but this gradually transforms into delight, and their growing fondness for each other is tenderly sketched. Southerland, perhaps wisely, downplays the romantic element in their relationship. Even when Harold decides he wants to marry Maude, it seems to spring from a place of affection rather than attraction.

The hardworking ensemble cast all play instruments during the between scene-interludes, Rebecca Caine turns the potentially one-note character of Harold’s mother into someone more rounded and Samuel Townsend does an excellent impression of a melancholy seal. But the whole thing feels a bit uncertain in tone and Francis O’Connor’s Juan Gris set, with its diagonals and ladders, splashes of colour and floating cellos, feels unnecessarily fussy.

In altering the last scene, Southerland reframes things, making the ending more about Maude than her impact on Harold’s life. He gets a bit forgotten. On one hand, this is refreshing. Maude gets to remain in charge of her story to the last and it’s pleasing to see this amount of stage time devoted to a woman of her age. But it also results in a sense of narrative imbalance, a story half told.

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Sheila Hancock illuminates an amiable, if tame, staging of the cult 1970s film