The cult 1971 film Harold and Maude is beloved for its big heart and black humour. Part romantic comedy, part dark satire, it was first produced as a stage play in 1974. Its London debut at The Charing Cross Theatre is a touching, bittersweet confection full of life-lessons to help us think beyond the conventional.
The story follows the friendship of 20-year old Harold and 79-year old Maude. Both enjoy attending strangers’ funerals. Harold is awkward at first but Maude brings out the romantic in him. Their love has a continuing appeal for its uncomplicated genuineness. Age is no barrier except when it comes to society. The story’s charm and lightness can make you forget the age gap between Harold and Maude that still seems to disgust people.
The period setting is Suburban America at a critical cultural point when sixties idealism shifted into the darker tenor of the 1970s. Samuel Townsend’s police Sergeant Dopple pursues the libertarian Maude dispassionately just to “stop people like you rocking the boat”. Maude wistfully notes “the world does love a cage” but she continually manages to wriggle out of one. Gaily helping herself to other people’s cars, and even liberating a seal from the zoo, she explains “Well, none of us really owns anything…”
This is a story about leaving things behind. Harold’s maudlin obsession with death turns into a joyful appreciation of life. Maude approaching the end of her life cries tears but accentuates the positive: when her questionably-obtained possessions are taken away she says “It’s exciting to think all these things will be going to new homes!”
Sheila Hancock brings a sense of vulnerability to Maude’s superhuman brio. If you’ve read Hancock’s memoirs of life with and after her late husband John Thaw, your heart will be in your mouth when Maude is asked about her own late husband. Sadness in Maude’s back story is left at a few telling details: some letters, an Austrian visa, a wartime ration book.
Bill Millner’s Harold is teasingly opaque. The play opens with him hanging himself in the latest of fifteen varied suicide attempts, suspended immobile from a noose while his mother Mrs Chasen remains unimpressed. Rebecca Caine is cut-glass-masquerading-as-crystal as the emotionally uninvolved socialite who busies herself trying to find her son a suitable bride.
Mrs Chasen’s mannerism is contrasted with Maude’s spontaneous feeling. “Music is the universal language, the cosmic dance,” says Maude, and music permeates the production with actor-musicians live on stage throughout and wonderful, wistful new music by composer Michael Bruce, with East European-style waltzes and the song centrepiece “If life were a sweet melody…”
Francis O’Connor’s set design is bright and airy with an uncanny tincture that situates the play’s surrealistic elements. Flowers appear as symbols of the regenerative circle of life. The evening glows with a heartfelt sensibility. More expansively philosophical than the film, the play preaches a unifying social message: “The world doesn’t need any more walls—we need to build more bridges.”
Reviewed by AJ Dehany
Photo: Darren Bell