Charing Cross Theatre, London – until March 31 2018
The art of telling truly great stories is in part a science. A captivating premise and fully formed characters can offer an opening for an audience to connect with a production. Occasionally it’s done well. But when the formula is perfected, the result is undeniably pure magic.
Hopeful, joyous and hilarious, Harold and Maude is one of these instances that nudges towards perfection. It is the story of a 19 year old who is deeply disconnected from the world, a much older woman with a profound connection to life, and their effect upon one another after meeting at a funeral. Yet while much may be made of the scandalous nature of the relationship for the age gap spanning several decades, to describe it in these terms alone is reductive.
Harold Chasen (Bill Milner) perfectly articulates the façade that a young man might put up to shield himself from a mother’s projections on to her son. Mrs Chasen (Rebecca Caine) is a formidable yet not monstrous woman, desperate only for her son to grow up and take responsibility, but in the form of a respectable marriage. It is, after all, all she knows.
As Harold spends more time with Maude, we witness how he blooms beneath her revitalising effect. She has lived so many lives, while Harold has yet to live one and the contrast is stark.
Sheila Hancock as Maude is utterly captivating; a magnetic, Technicolor whirling dervish, it should come as no surprise that Harold falls in love with her. She is spectacularly lovable and unbelievably believable.
A snappy – yet not rushed – script lovingly draws out the nuances in key relationships; between the titular characters, Harold and his mother, Harold and the world, Maude and the world. Amidst it all there are many things including a seal, a gong, a tree and some extraordinary paintings. None of this is superfluous, though. Everything has a part to play and bears testament to a masterful feat of set design (Francis O’Connor) and direction.
The supporting cast are fantastically humorous and talented, alternating between bringing Michael Bruce’s score to the stage with an array of instruments and playing various characters. Samuel Townsend delivers a particularly noteworthy performance.
When told well, coming of age stories are very often a reminder of the fragility and beauty of life, inspiring a carpe diem attitude tempered with immense gratitude. That the ‘Harold and Maude effect’ delivers this message completely liberated of any subtleties is a shining beacon of hope for humanity in otherwise trying times. Like Maude herself, it really is ‘an original talker’ and a production entirely befitting her sparkle.