As he obediently marches into countless performances of suicide, Harold has a somewhat unique motivation. He isn’t provoked by a death-wish as he performs petrol-fuelled self-immolation in a wheelie bin in the garden, nor is he dreaming of the afterlife as he cosies up with some dynamite in a wardrobe. Rather, guided by his mother’s apparent inability to appreciate him, Harold curates a programme of apparent demises to underline the fact that he is still alive.
So, while they say that opposites attract, when Harold meets Maude at a stranger’s funeral – these being a favourite pastime for both – there is a definite symmetry between how the eighteen-year old man and septuagenarian woman witness the world, reflected from their opposing bookends of the shelf that is adulthood. While Harold’s tragic stunts fall on his mother’s indifferent eyes, Maude’s relentless joie de vivre gives him the appreciation he has been craving. Those with Freudian inclinations may balk at the parallel between mother and lover, but the bleakly optimistic humour at play here paves the way for an unlikely yet enthralling companionship.
As his preparations shift from elaborate suicides to marriage proposal, I’m sure young Harold will agree that some things just get better with age – and this can certainly be said for the 1971 movie adaptation of Harold and Maude, which took twelve years to begin making profit. Thom Southerland’s off-West End production ripens the black comedy and quaint oddity of the cult film further. There are moments where you half expect the action to cut to a flashback, and the pivotal final scene gains all the poise of its big screen counterpart, fittingly grainy under Matt Clutterham’s dusky lighting design. Meanwhile, Jonathan Lipman excels in presenting covetable period dress that is charming in its boldness, and loyal to its 70s timeframe, without compromising a stitch on originality.
Southerland’s production is so much more than a tribute to the film, bolstering this tale of star-crossed lovers with a joyously self-aware theatricality. The musical, mouldable cast weaves into roles with a full palette of energy and technique – yodelling, barking out seal noises and – in one particularly tickling scene – imitating the platitudes and niceties of a banal phone conversation through the glissando of a cello.
Elsewhere, Michael Bruce’s score brings the creation of non-diegetic music right into the midst of the performance, showing the story’s debt to film while embracing its new, dynamic home on stage. When not required to act, the supporting actors stand sternly around the unlikely couple, observing with a stony stillness. Son of Rambow’s Bill Milner brings a Shakespearean gloom to Harold’s acts of self mutilation, while Joanna Hickman provides bite to the production’s meta-fictionality, portraying a rotation of Harold’s dating agency matches, with the clear highlight being a overzealous thesp with a bubblegum morbidity.
Of course, despite his dates’ best efforts, Harold only has eyes for one woman. And in that devotion, I share his stance – for Sheila Hancock as Maude is, with no exaggeration or doubt, one of the most impeccable castings I’ve seen for a long time. Hancock’s character is reckless where other people’s rules are concerned – but she’s also driven by a faultlessly creative logic of her own. Under Francis O’Connor’s Magritte-inspired set – a fitting match for Maude’s manipulation of phrasing for her own surrealist ends – Maude employs wordplay and imaginative freedom to spin a new compelling and rigidly articulate take on life: an uprooted tree, in her resolutely literal stance, is a matter of life and death, while a somersault is one solid way to get a “whole new perspective.”
Throughout, the free-spirit swerves points established by the status quo, but always locates, through her own reason, something sharper. Maude is an original character, freed by her inability to follow rules, and Hancock embraces this liberated part with a expansive sensuality and unstoppable spirit.
Harold and Maude is on until 31 March 2108 at the Charing Cross Theatre. Click here for more details.