According to the programme for this production of Harold and Maude, the play has been performed all over the place, on different continents – and thus, presumably, in different languages. But (and it’s no surprise the programme doesn’t mention this) the 1980 Broadway run began previews on 19 January before opening on 7 February, and promptly closing on 9 February. The 2018 London production was still going more than three weeks after its press night, thus allowing me to check out something I wouldn’t have had a chance to had it gone the same way as the original run. Not only that, but it has extended its scheduled run by six weeks.
This is with some justification. I’ve developed a bit of a reputation (only amongst fellow reviewers, mind) of attempting to seek out the original sources for show scripts prior to seeing them, whether I see them on press night as a member of the press horde, or otherwise later just as a punter. I went in ‘blind’ this time around (and there wasn’t a huge novel to plough through as source material, just a 91-minute motion picture that slowly developed cult status over some years).
I suppose by modern standards something like Harold and Maude is a little tame – imagine, hypothetically, watching Psycho for the first time in this day and age: it would hardly be the scariest psychological horror movie out there. What freaks the various Multiple Dates (Joanna Hickman) – for that is what the characters are collectively named in the programme is one of two main hobbies held by young Harold (Bill Milner), the carrying out of fake but (sort of) convincing suicides. Marie (Annie White), the new maid to Mrs Chazen (Rebecca Caine), is the first to react with surprise, and doesn’t seem to quite get over it. Harold’s other main hobby, attending church funerals – appropriately dressed, mind you – is how he comes across Maude (Sheila Hancock), a woman of pensionable age with as many eccentricities as the man (or woman or non-binary) on the Clapham omnibus has had hot dinners.
Maude’s sheer dottiness is the source for much amusement, but there are also some pearls of wisdom in amongst all the madness, even if we’ve heard them all before. Our Lady of Perpetual Peculiarity encourages her young charge: “L-I-V-E, live!Otherwise, you got nothing to talk about in the locker room.” The musical compositions (Michael Bruce) are a delight to listen to, and this production embraces the actor as musician, with a cello used as the voice at the other end of the phone. Enjoyable as they were, though, some of the accompaniments were ultimately superfluous. Having most, if not all, the cast members on stage in order to facilitate the musicianship doesn’t always work to the show’s advantage, especially when it’s just Harold and Maude (in a show called Harold and Maude) – the intimacy is somewhat lost.
Some details about Maude’s past help explain why she has become the sort of person she is in her older years, and it’s not a bad thing, all things considered, to leave the theatre wondering what happens after the point at which the story ends. There are a couple of people who I could envisage being like Maude, the woman who went into a pet shop and let all the birds out of their cages. Father Finnegan (Johnson Willis) raises objections to bedroom activity between the 19-year-old Harold and the 79-year-old Maude: I need not regurgitate the details. Suffice to say, the scene was a hoot.
“The world doesn’t need any more walls. What we’ve got to do is go out and build some bridges,” Maude tells Harold. Aww. As I say, I just went along for the ride long after press night, but if pushed for a rating, it’s four stars from me.