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Theatre review: Harold and Maude

A death-defying crush

Charing Cross Theatre

    Bill Milner and Sheila Hancock (Photo: Darren Bell)
    Bill Milner and Sheila Hancock (Photo: Darren Bell)

    This curious romance sits in the rarely-seen boy meets octogenarian genre.

    The boy here is actually a young man, the eponymous Harold (Bill Milner), a well-heeled, only child with a morbid, if entertaining, fascination for faking his own death. Seventy nine-year-old Maude an energetic Sheila Hancock who is in fact six years older than her character is his geriatric love interest.

    Colin Higgins’s 1974 satire started life as the screenplay for the 1971 film directed by Hal Ashby who later made the equally oddball Being There (1979), about an idiot (Peter Sellers) who becomes a prospect for US president (it’ll never happen).

    Both works share a gently subversive humour. But Harold and Maude is probably the more transgressive just for the age gap between the two leads, even if, in the play, the romance is more in the mind of Harold than Maude and less defined than in the film, which features a scene that can only be described as post-coital.

    What binds the duo are their differences. Harold has an obsession with death rooted in his Catholicism. Maude has a non-conformist love of life rooted in what we infer is her Jewishness. Her husband was killed in the camps. Indeed, her entire joie de vivre is, it’s suggested, derived from knowing the value of life learned from that experience.

    Tom Southerland’s inventive production emphasises charm, rather than transgression, a quality jauntily emphasised by his cast of actor musicians. Michael Bruce’s playful score is a perfect parody of the early ’70s musical taste. But those who know the film will miss not only Cat Stevens’s songs but an edgy sense of risk. There is a moment in the film where establishment types declare their disgust at Harold’s infatuation, the funniest when a psychologist admits that the Oedipal urge to sleep with one’s mother is a very common psychosis. But grandmother?

    Nothing so funny exists here. Except perhaps the portrayal of a seal which mischievous Maude has liberated from a zoo and temporarily installed in her apartment. It’s a role for which Samuel Townsend (who also plays a policeman) barks so uncannily and hilariously that it might have been more diverting had Harold’s infatuation been for the animal. (After all, Edward Albee’s Who is Sylvia? is about a man’s love for a goat.)

    For the most part, the evening plateaus on a level of middling amusement. Milner is very good as the po-faced Harold. And, as the wise old bird Maude, Hancock exudes a sensuality that prevents Harold’s infatuation from appearing entirely perverse.

    But this show takes a long time to deliver its simple carpe diem lesson.

     

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