Review - Harold and Maude, starring Sheila Hancock, at the Charing Cross Theatre
You can sense director Thom Southerland straining at the leash to turn Harold and Maude in to a musical. This stage version of Colin Higgins's screenplay for the 1971 film was first seen in 1974, adapted by the screenwriter himself, and it has the episodic jump-cuts of a movie so it never fully feels like the theatre is its true home. Southerland tries to solve these problems by threading live music between the scenes, played by the actors themselves, and he even gives a song each to the title characters to perform to each other.
There were times when I thought of the recent Romantics Anonymous (seen at Shakespeare's Globe) with its similarly quirky take on a relationship that takes its seemingly unlikely parties into previously uncharted waters. But the musical template here isn't as good or as organically embedded, and neither, inevitably, is the direction as assured as Emma Rice's sublime creation that is pitch-perfect (in every sense).
But there is still something irresistibly sweet and charming about this story about a young man, prone to staging suicide attempts to shock his mother into noticing his existence, who finds himself falling in love with a free-spirited, wilfully eccentric woman, who is nearly 80, when they meet at a funeral.
She's a liberator of property - and even a zoo seal - that doesn't belong to her. She's also prone to bon mots of philosophical wisdom: "The world doesn’t need any more walls. What we’ve got to do is go out and build some bridges." (Please send that to Donald Trump!)
As played by Sheila Hancock, who is actually playing five years younger than her own true age, she projects a Viennese accent (with the assistance of subtle amplification) with a captivating, eccentric grace. Hancock has long been one of our most treasured theatrical personalities, whose versatile career has also embraced being the first woman to direct on the National's Olivier stage, as well as writing a gorgeous memorial to her late husband John Thaw, The Two of Us, amongst other books. To see this great stage veteran, up close on the stage of the Charing Cross, is a privilege and a treat.
Southerland's production also has her delightfully joined by Bill Milner as Harold, and there's also a scene-stealing performance from Rebecca Caine as Harold's forbidding mother.
Photos by Darren Bell