Harold and Maude,,
Charing Cross Theatre, London,
Originally a film script for one made in 1971 starring Ruth Gordon as Maude, the play version of Harold and Maude was written three years later by Colin Higgins for Jean Louis Barrault and Madeleine Renaud. It was a hit and since then the play has been widely performed.
It turns up now as a vehicle for Sheila Hancock, something of a national institution, now in her twilight years but still blazing brightly. She plays Maude, the almost 80 years old lady who lives on her wits and likes going to funerals. At one funeral, she meets Harold, a 20-year-old wealthy young man with a domineering mother who has a death wish and keeps trying, or pretending, to kill himself. Maude introduces him to living life to the full and may even have married him by the end of the play, although this is left a little vague in this staging with added music.
Director Thom Southerland, whose forte is musicals, has added songs for the rest of the cast to perform, which add a certain something to the undeniably schmaltzy goings on. The sugar content is high, the scandalous stuff about geriatric sex kept quiet.
Without Hancock it could have been pretty dreadful, although Bill Milner is very good, if not quite bonkers enough, as Harold, unlike Bud Cort in the movie. There is also a stylish set by Francis O’Connor to offset the action. As for Hancock, she sparkles, looks most elegant, delivers her lines with aplomb, climbs a somewhat questionable ladder, and creates a touching old lady, a grand now penniless Austrian who has had a difficult past – there are hints of time spent in a concentration camp – beautifully.
Given her long career in which she has done pretty well everything, Hancock could have played the part in her sleep. But she does nothing of the kind. This really is not a case of Hancock’s half hour but Hancock’s night.