Charing Cross Theatre, London – until 31 March 2018
Guest reviewer: Maeve Campbell
Hal Ashby’s 1971 film Harold & Maude is a masterpiece. Harold is 19 and obsessed with death. He meets Maude, a week off 80, who lives her life to its fullest and is constantly seeking new experiences.
Opposites attract, and what plays out is one of the most charming, unusual and sincere romances in celluloid history. Thom Southerland’s Charing Cross Theatre revival is lovely but misses out on the sincerity that helped garner the film’s cult classic status.
This revival is good fun, with some enjoyably campy turns from a proficient musical ensemble. Sheila Hancock gives a graceful performance as the effervescent Maude. Bill Milner hits his stride with Harold in the second act. His character is somewhat undeveloped, but he exudes charm and when given a good bit of text demonstrates an attractive playfulness.
I do not, however, buy into any sexual chemistry between the leads, which is crucial in investing in the story. What is lovely about these characters is their total ignorance of social expectation and perceived taboos. There is an innocence in their enjoyment of each other that just doesn’t come across strongly enough in this production.
The scenes that are just the two of them are far and away the best, but they are often unsatisfactorily cut short. The play doesn’t let the audience believe that the two are in love, or even in lust. And both its leads are sexy, but they seem to have been directed to suppress this sexiness.
This perhaps demonstrates the larger societal problems of how to present female sexuality, specifically in relation to older females. This production is just too mainstream to address or deal with such problems.
There is also a conservative drabness in Francis O’Connor’s set design that tempers the impression of the whole show. It is such a colourful story that isn’t reflected in the production aesthetic. There are so many wasted opportunities to explore seventies kitsch that may have lifted the energy.
It is hard not to smile, and potentially shed a little tear, at points throughout. And maybe this isn’t a show for fans of the movie – it doesn’t match up, but that’s ok. It does still do a pretty good job in delivering a desperately needed dose of life affirmation on a cold February evening.