Better known for the film version which has gained cult popularity, and based on the stage version written by Colin Higgins in 1974, Harold and Maude premiered this week at the Charing Cross Theatre. Harold Chasen (Bill Milner) is barely out of his teens, a young man more interested in faking his own death to shock his mother, than in dating women his age. His busy mother, Mrs Chasen (Rebecca Caine, on form) doesn’t have time to be shocked by his latest violent entanglement with a noose or a gun or a stick of dynamite. Her attempts to cure him of his tendencies and to set him up with a girlfriend are both doomed, since meanwhile – at a funeral of a stranger to them both – Harold has met Maude.
In Maude (Sheila Hancock) Harold meets his pure opposite: on the verge of turning eighty, she sees each day as an opportunity to learn and do something new, to free a caged animal from the zoo or to re-site a tree. Facing authority in the form of police sergeants, and vicars, Maude goes through life as she wishes, and she has a profound effect upon Harold. We see him start to smile, to open up, to blossom in her company. The romantic aspect is played down, but what we do witness is a total transformation in one young man.
The effect on me is less positive. I want to like this play as it starts with a nice shock – the first of many faked suicides – and the macabre attempts of Harold to take his life have a good twist of black humour. The set design and lighting design (by Francis O’Connor and Matt Clutterham in that order) are attractive, and the two titular performances are strong. However, the words twee and dated keep springing to mind. Director Thom Southerland places his group of actor musicians on stage throughout, which is stylistically interesting at first and some of the moments provide a light touch such as Joanna Hickman’s cello, which plays the unheard half of a conversation with Mrs Chasen – yet at times their presence is quirky to the point of annoying. The liberated seal (voiced by Samuel Townsend) seemed to induce hilarity in some of my fellow audience but I found myself cringeing. I believe in this friendship between two people of entirely different generations, but there is a reticence to mention the sexual aspect – to use an anachronistic phrase, this elephant in the room is just not dealt with.
The high point is the performance by Hancock, herself a sprightly eighty-five years old and able to imbue Maude with as much originality as she can, given the nature of the script. Her Austrian accent hints at her background and, although Maude does not talk much about the war-time trauma in her past, it is mentioned with gentleness and subtlety. Hancock is funny and mischievous and commands the stage at all times, always 100% impressive. Milner plays her unlikely opposite with much success. His deadpan delivery is spot on, his determined attempts to take his own life are carried out with much visual flair, and his outfits (costume design by Jonathan Lipman) look perfect on him. It is touching to watch him as he absorbs Maude’s joie de vivre and metamorphoses into a different person altogether. However, the performances are not enough. The play is not ultimately uplifting, which is not a criticism, but the ending is unbalanced when Maude makes her own brave choice about life and death, whereas Harold is given no words, no chance to despair. We are left with a feeling of positivity for Maude, but a feeling of nothingness for Harold. His life has been given a new meaning, he has been taught “not to be afraid of being human”, and I wanted to be given a glimpse of how he will get on, without Maude by his side.
hattydaze rating: **/*****
This review originally appeared on Miro Magazine. With thanks to Miro for the reviewing ticket. Harold and Maude plays at the Charing Cross Theatre until 31st March. For more information and to book tickets, see the theatre website.