A Couple of Years

By Richard Barber

When the film of Harold and Maude was rushed into cinemas just before Christmas in 1971, and without any pre-publicity, it bombed. Within three years, though, this quirky tale of the friendship and love affair between a teenager and a woman approaching her 80th birthday had morphed into a cult hit, helped in no small part by the performances of Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon in the title roles.

The late Colin Higgins’ screenplay was subsequently turned into a stage play performed around the world. Now, all these years later, it has found its way to Charing Cross Theatre and it turns out to be something of a charming oddity.

I am as resistant to whimsy as the next man, but the sure-footedness of Thom Southerland’s direction and the performances – particularly those of the two leading players – combine to serve up a delicate mix of surreal wit and somewhat hippyish wisdom.

We’re in 1970s suburban America, beautifully realised in Jonathan Lipman’s hideous brown and orange costumes, and Harold is hanging from the rafters with a noose around his neck. A morbid youth, he delights in staging faux suicides and attending the funerals of people he’s never met, at one of which he meets superannuated flower girl, Maude.

His society mother, Mrs Chasen (Rebecca Caine, admirably avoiding caricature), ignores her son’s ghoulish set pieces, preferring instead to place before him a succession of young women (all played by Joanna Hickman) whom she feels might make suitable wife material. Harold rejects the lot, as his affection for the iconoclastic Maude makes him open up like a rose in the morning sun.

Bill Milner, seen recently on screen in Dunkirk, beautifully delineates the arc of Harold’s flowering (and deflowering, come to that). And he is matched every step of the way by
Sheila Hancock in a spot-on performance as Maude, ‘borrowing’ other people’s cars, liberating animals from the local zoo and generally behaving just like an overgrown rebellious schoolgirl. It is a scene-stealing turn. Also on hand are half-a-dozen performers, all of them with strong singing voices when required, all of them proficient in playing musical instruments. Without spoiling your fun, the story finishes on a wistful note, the ending a little rushed, if truth be told. But there are some laugh-out-loud moments to be savoured along the way and Samuel Townsend’s impression of a seal (don’t ask) is worth the price of entry alone.

Until 31 March at the Charing Cross Theatre, London WC2: 08444-930650, www. charingcrosstheatre.co.uk/theatre/ harold-and-maude