Take one disaffected young man. Add a spirited woman who challenges his views and forces him to try new things. The result: a manic pixie dream girl film which leaves the audience with a whole new lease on life and the witty clichéd sound bites of the dream girl swirling around in their minds. The original cult film Harold and Maude followed this formula with a couple of twists; the dream girl was a 79-year-old woman, and the young man, obsessed with staging gruesome suicides. A marriage of the macabre and a sublime soundtrack, Harold and Maude skirted a line to create something defiant and different. Thom Sutherland’s Harold and Maude is not quite able to match this and delivers a solid but sanitised version.
Bill Milner is the sullen loner Harold; a teenage boy who enjoys staging suicides to get rises out of his long-suffering mother (Rebecca Caine). In between dates with “girls from the computer” that his mother forces him to attend, Harold frequents the funerals of strangers. At one funeral he meets Maude (Sheila Hancock), an eccentric elderly woman who claims to be an Austrian Countess, with no respect for rules and a passion for life; the two engage in numerous shenanigans.
Milner lacks the eeriness and creepiness of the Harolds before him, his portrayal homing in on Harold’s dissatisfaction with life, fear of his own mortality and relationship with his mother. On the one hand, this makes Harold easier to relate to and this vulnerability makes for a more rounded performance by Milner, but it alters the overall tone of the piece. Milner’s Harold is more teenage, which somehow detracts from the darkness of the humour and makes his suicides seem a bit more like silly boyish pranks. Whilst this enhances the feel-good aspect of the play, it ebbs away at the gravity of his feelings for Maude that appear to be the whims of a boy, this isn’t helped by the omission of the sexual nature of their relationship. Sheila Hancock is a good Maude, spirited yet deeply sad with an energy that radiates through the theatre and the decision to expand her backstory was a good one.
The set and live music are delightful, quirky but not too quirky with the musicians doubling as other characters. There were some masterstrokes of genius in the direction, the play’s best scene for example where Harold’s mother, who is divine as a self-important socialite, fills out his dating questionnaire in a wan tone ignoring his various faked suicides designed to distract her. But the staging at time feels inconsistent for example the singular use of tap dancing, and use of human voices to replicate artificial sounds.
At the very least Sutherland’s Harold and Maude is a fun, feel-good production, but one that could’ve done with an injection of darkness.
Harold and Maude is playing at Charing Cross Theatre until 31 March 2018
Photo: Darren Bell