Harold and Maude – Review

Bill Milner and Sheila Hancock in Harold and Maude. Images Darren Bell

I’ve never understood this mania for black. I mean no one sends black flowers, do they? Black flowers are dead flowers, and who would send dead flowers to a funeral?

The 1971 film, Harold and Maude, based on a screenplay by the late Colin Higgins, has long been a favourite of mine. It’s an astonishingly modern movie about death and dying that’s really far more about life and living.

Harold and Maude, now an offbeat and quirky stage comedy starring Sheila Hancock and Bill Milner, opened tonight at Charing Cross Theatre and it’s just as life-enhancing.

Like the film, this terrific, must-see, play also challenges perceptions about the ageing female body and mind, portraying them as things of beauty and wisdom rather than a nuisance, or even worse, invisible.

Completely bonkers, endlessly quotable, with a wonderful soundtrack and some very cool early-70s suits, the film still flopped at the box office.

Gross, they said. Why would anyone want to go and see a story about a 20-year-old boy falling in love with an octogenarian?

The film later became a cult classic, and pioneered ‘death positivity’ (Google it) and the right to choose a ‘good death’. We now see Harold and Maude as decades ahead of its time.

It even spawned a new-age philosophy about what it means to be human, explored in a wonderful charity fundraising book called The Little Book of Maudism by author Lucy Talbot – available online or at the Charing Cross Theatre, where it is hopefully selling like hotcakes.

Directed by Thom Southerland, Harold and Maude, which I saw in preview on Saturday, is an absolute delight.

True to the book, but with a few diversions taken out (there’s no comical one-handed army major, unfortunately), it will keep fans happy and introduce many more to Maudism and the movie.

Bill Milner makes a perfect Harold Chasen.

Pale and skinny, vacant-faced and seemingly devoid of emotion or desire for human contact, he gets his kicks by visiting demolition sites to watch cars being crushed or going to the funerals of people he doesn’t know.

Harold rocks those vintage suits, but he has no friends to speak of.

He also has no interest in the numerous bubbly young women (all played by Joanna Hickman, who also doubles as a very funny cellist) his self-obsessed and wealthy mother attempts to marry him off to, both to get him out the house and stop him splattering her house and daffodil beds in fake blood.

You see, he’s so used to being ignored by Mrs Chasen (an over-the-top and hilarious Rebecca Caine in a ridiculous bouffant wig), that Harold has taken to staging a series of fake suicides for her to discover.

These visual gags are much less realistic and gory than in the film but that only adds to the absurdity of it all.

It’s all rather wacky and in frightfully bad-taste. The unflappable Mrs Chasen just rolls her eyes as these scenes get progressively sillier.

“I haven’t lived. I’ve died a few times…” Harold explains, when he comes alive after getting to know Maude, a joy-riding, plant-thieving, life-loving pensioner, at one with nature and unconcerned with making an ass of herself.

As she approaches her 80th birthday, Maude likes to blur vices and virtues (“aim above morality!”), goes to funerals to remind herself of life, and sees no reason not to wear bright orange while she’s at it.

Threatened with the confiscation of her belongings by Inspector Bernard (Anthony Cable) and Sergeant Dopple (Samuel Townsend) who are just following orders (Maude’s clearly heard that one before, you’ll find out why later) she sees it instead as an opportunity to gain more floorspace for dancing.

Maude teaches Harold how to find joy in every little thing. “We’re given life to find it out,” she says. A very satisfying explanation.

The luminous Sheila Hancock could not have been better cast. After turning 85 last week, the timeless Hancock is a decade older than Ruth Gordon, the original Maude.

Her performance is perfect, engaging, with an Austrian accent subtle enough to intrigue without distracting, helping the audience understand emerging hints about Maude’s wartime past and how it shaped her philosophy.

The supporting cast, doubling as the show’s entertaining band, remain on stage throughout, and they don’t take their eyes off her. Nor can we.

Harold and Maude is at its best when most surreal. I particularly loved Townsend’s police officer as a honking seal with a ukulele, and Anne White’s maid, tap-dancing across the stage with a tray of drinks for absolutely no reason.

Mrs Chasen, asking Maude her thoughts on an older woman marrying a much younger man – while oblivious to Maude being Maude – and Maude under the impression that Mrs Chasen is discussing her own love-life, is a brilliant highlight.

Christopher Dickins doesn’t get much stage time as Dr Matthews, and I do wish Harold (or Maude) had been given the chance to answer back when Johnson Willis’s Father Finnegan has an insulting rant about what he considers to be the horrors of the elderly female form.

The set is plain and colourless with the vibrant sunflower-strewn beauty of Maude’s birthday party only hinted at.

But the costumes (Jonathan Lipman) are divine throughout, with Maude becoming a fashion icon as well as a moral and spiritual guide.

I learned that gorgeously draped crushed velvet is as essential to ageing well as a positive attitude.

At 80, Maude is a similar age to my next-door neighbour, a lovely woman now deep in the grips of dementia and unable to do anything but watch hours and hours of TV that she can’t hear or understand.

She knocks on my door sometimes to tell me that she’s lonely, but can’t ever remember who I am or that she has done it dozens of times before.

I thought of her throughout the play, in part because she has the same haircut and startling blue eyes as Hancock in her programme headshot.

I’m a little annoyed at myself for leaving the theatre with a lack of warm glow inside, a little bit more maudlin than Maude, thinking about those of us who don’t get to age well, or even get old at all.

We won’t all get to climb a tree in our ninth decade, pose nude, or knock back champagne, but making the most of everything while you still can is the ultimate lesson here.

Harold and Maude runs at Charing Cross Theatre until March 31.

Review Rating
  • Harold and Maude
5

Summary

Life-enhancing. Sheila Hancock is luminous and Bill Milner perfectly cast in the quirky, offbeat, Harold and Maude, which is less about death and dying and far more about life and living.

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