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Harold and Maude at Charing Cross Theatre – Review

Harold and Maude - Bill Milner and Sheila Hancock PHOTO by Darren Bell
Harold and Maude – Bill Milner and Sheila Hancock PHOTO by Darren Bell

What exactly is the relevance of age? I’m in my fifties but have good friends ranging from twenty-five to sixty. Yes, we all have different experiences of life but it is our interests that unite us. Ultimately, age is just a number and if you find a spark with someone older or younger than yourself then you should give that a chance and see what happens. Who knows, it might even change your life. This then is the basic principle behind Colin Higgins’ play Harold and Maude enjoying a limited run at the Charing Cross Theatre.

Set in New York in the 1970s Harold and Maude tells the story of two very different people. Harold (Bill Milner) is a nineteen-year-old boy with a peculiar outlook on life. Whilst most teenagers are interested in sex, drugs, alcohol, rock & roll, or at least some combination of these, Harold enjoys attending funerals of strangers. At home, his obsession with death takes the form of macabre fake suicides in order to get a response from his intensely busy socialite mother (Rebecca Caine). So Harold is disappointed with life until the day he runs into an Austrian Countess with an incredibly tangled official name and title, but known simply as Maude (Sheila Hancock) at a funeral. Maude is nearly eighty and views funerals with a lively eye. The two of them strike up a friendship and Maude imbues Harold with her basic philosophy of life – a new experience every day – and he responds to the warmth and affection that she shows him. The two of them really do live life to the full, climbing trees, releasing animals from the zoo and just appreciating the beauty of the world.

Based on the 1971 movie of the same name and adapted from his own screenplay, Colin Higgins has penned a wonderful story with Harold and Maude. The two central characters are just wonderful. Harold is a young man with too much money who drifts through life trying to get his mother’s attention. Maude is a true free spirit for whom everything is full of wonder and potential. She has a beautiful philosophy of life and at times sounds like a walking/talking motivation poster. But, unlike those posters seen in workplaces, Maud’s motivational comments and speeches sound true. She is merely saying what she believes and for that, she is just wonderful. Maude has obviously gone through a bad time previously but her survival of dark days – which are mentioned in passing – seems to have reinforced her love for life. Harold, on the other hand, is a complex creature. His obsession with death is not that unusual in a teenager but his attempts to get a reaction from his distant mother spark of a desperation to be acknowledged and loved. He is also at a perfect age to be shown how to blossom and bloom into a warm, friendly man capable of seeing the wonders of the world.

Two amazingly strong characters need two really amazing actors to bring them to life and Sheila Hancock and Bill Milner as Maude and Harold respectively are the epitome of truly perfect casting. Having heard Sheila on Radio 4’s “Just a Minute” many times, I can totally see her as Maude in real life. An effervescent lady who, while physically elderly, is really ageless, and who floats through life with a smile on her face and a song in her heart. Bill travels with Harold on his long and difficult journey from sullen teenager to a young man determined to enjoy life. The pairing of these two works so well and the affection between them is palpable as they take the audience with them on this tremendous narrative.

Harold and Maude: Rebecca Caine (Mrs Chasen) and Sheila Hancock (Maude).
Harold and Maude: Rebecca Caine (Mrs Chasen) and Sheila Hancock (Maude). Photo by Darren Bell

It would be really easy to overlook the rest of the cast at this point, and that would be a mistake. Rebecca Caine as Harold’s mother is brilliant, showing a horrible lack of interest in her son’s attempts to shock her but then obsessing over his personality and going to desperate ends to find him a girlfriend. The rest of the cast (Anne White, Anthony Cable, Christopher Dickins, Joanna Hickman, Johnson Willis and Samuel Townsend – who does a lovely seal impression) all play musical instruments and provide music between scenes and incidental music at various points as well as being individual characters in the story.

Director Thom Southerland knows his business and the Charing Cross Theatre stage well and uses every inch to perfection moving his players around the wonderful Francis O’Connor set – even getting Sheila to shin up a ladder – and Jonathan Lipman’s very appropriate costumes really add to creating the atmosphere of 1970s New York.

All told, I adored Harold and Maude. It is a gentle play with lots of moments of comedy that leave the audience chuckling rather than giving loud belly laughs. The story is inspirational and the acting sublime. Harold and Maude is better for you than any self-help book could ever be and I left the theatre feeling elevated, relaxed and just that little bit better about myself with a definite determination to follow Maude’s example and embrace every aspect of life – the good and the bad. This really is theatre that will stay with you for a long long time. The run is limited so get tickets while you can.

5 Star Rating

Review by Terry Eastham

Equal parts dark comedy and romantic innocence, Harold and Maude is an idiosyncratic romantic fable told through the eyes of the most unlikely pairing: a compulsive, self-destructive young man and a devil-may-care, septuagenarian bohemian.

Dame Marjorie “Maude” Chardin (Olivier Award-winner Sheila Hancock), is a free spirit who wears her hair in braids, believes in living each day to its fullest, and “trying something new every day”. Harold Parker Chasen (Bill Milner) is an 18-year-old man who is obsessed with death, attends funerals of strangers for entertainment and stages elaborate fake suicides. Through meeting Maude at a funeral, he discovers joy in living for the first time.

Harold and Maude dissolves the line between darkness and light along with ones that separate people by class, gender and age.

The cast also includes: Anthony Cable (The Woman in White, Charing Cross Theatre), Rebecca Caine (Flowers For Mrs Harris, Crucible Sheffield), Christopher Dickins (Ragtime, Charing Cross Theatre), Joanna Hickman (Ragtime, Charing Cross Theatre), Samuel Townsend (84 Charing Cross Road, Cambridge Arts Theatre), Anne White (Love in the Past Participle, The Other Palace) and Johnson Willis (Dido Queen of Carthage, RSC).

Charing Cross Theatre’s artistic director Thom Southerland directs the production, with set design by Francis O’Connor, costumes by Jonathan Lipman, lighting by Matt Clutterham, sound design from Andrew Johnson and compositions by Michael Bruce.

February 19th 2018 – March 31st 2018
The Arches, Villiers Street
London, WC2N 6NL

Harold and Maude [1971] [DVD]

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1 thought on “Harold and Maude at Charing Cross Theatre – Review”

  1. You don’t need a fancy set when you’re a real actor. This play is proof. Great cast, so different to the original movie. But equally as entertaining.

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