Tuesday, 27 February 2018

REVIEW: Harold and Maude at the Charing Cross Theatre

It seems slightly odd to be seeing a UK premiere of a 1974 stage play based on a 1971 cult Hollywood movie both written by Colin Higgins in the intimate setting of the Charing Cross Theatre but be in no doubt that this is a marvellous quirky play. It is a perfect vehicle for Shelia Hancock who so charmingly plays the 80 year old Maud opposite the naive peculiar Harold played with equal skill by Bill Milner. They make an odd couple in every way possible but this provides a relationship to explore the meaning of life and love.

Though the programme sets the action in the seventies in the US, and references to World War II place it there, this is a timeless piece set in an abstract world of muted colours and curious theatrical devises. It flows from scene to scene with gentle underscoring by six actor musicians who observe the action and play the minor roles. It creates an ethereal feel, a place where life begins and ends.

Shelia Hancock is wonderful as Maud, the Viennese emigre to America who gently challenges all societal norms of ownership, regulation and behaviour and follows a bohemian caring lifestyle. Bill Milner's character Harold starts as the young adolescent rebel obsessed by death and determined to shock his mother (Rebeca Caine) by his increasingly dramatic but amusing suicide attempts but is changed by his meeting with Maud at a funeral of someone neither knows. In a beautiful final scene of Act one we hear him reveal his first brush with death and are introduced to Maud's philosophy for life through her song "if life was a sweet melody". In the second act, Harold is taken on a journey of discovery with Maud about the meaning and joy of life and starts to see a different future. This unlikely friendship is made believable by their gentle skilful interaction and builds to a poignant finale.

The staging is a non conformist ,non realistic, almost absurdist place with a green ladder, a hole in stage, odd angled doors and walls, a multiple purpose cupboard, large flowers and a blue sky and clouds ceiling. It creates a surreal space, like a Salvador Dali painting. It reflects the oddball, madcap behaviours of Maud and Harold as they challenge normal social rules. The direction by Thom Southerland reinforces this with great attention to detail. When Harold meets the psychiatrist they wear the same clothes. When the mother makes a phone call, the cello provides the voice of the other party. The maid tap dances across the stage do no reason.The musicians are placed with great care in each scene, at one point peering into the room through the window. 

The central message that we all live in our own castles and we need to knockdown walls and build bridges is as relevant today as when it was written in the seventies. Though at one level it is a love story about an eighteen year old and eighty year old, it also a challenge about growing old, making the most of your time, and non traditional spirituality offered by nature itself. It calls for us to build bridges across social divides of class, gender, religion and age and follow a caring optimistic outlook on life.

But it is Shelia Hancock who steals the show with a wonderful comic timing, graceful movement and moving finale.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★★
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