HAROLD AND MAUDE, CHARING CROSS THEATRE Theatrical adaptation of the 1971 cult Californian movie doesn't set the stage on fire
The practice of mining the rich seam of popular movies to turn them into stage plays or musicals seemingly never grows tired in theatreland. And sometimes it produces a gem but all too often it’s just a cynical ploy to attract ticket sales by piggy-backing on fond memories of a beloved film. It’s unfair to accuse this stage adaptation of Hal Ashby’s cult movie, Harold and Maude, of cynicism; the efforts of all involved are patently sincere, but sadly it just doesn’t work. Whereas the 1971 film was a superior slice of absurdist black humour tinged with transgressive romance, the 2018 theatrical version is an awkward, sexless hybrid marred by weak acting and flat pacing.
Screenwriter Colin Higgins reworked his original script for the stage back in 1974, before the film had earned its cult status. Though a Broadway flop (starring Janet Gaynor of all people) in 1980, the play over the years has apparently become a staple in French repertory theatre. It’s the story of Harold, a depressed 20-year-old rich kid who tries to win his snobby socialite mother’s attention by staging ever more grandiose mock suicides. When he meets Maude, an elderly free spirit, their May-December romance causes consternation to all observers. One can see the appeal of putting the play on in London as a vehicle for that great comedienne Sheila Hancock. She embodies Maude, an eccentric maverick approaching her 80th birthday with all the joie de vivre she can muster.
Maude claims to be a refugee countess from Austria and alludes to wartime widowhood. She certainly knows how to enjoy life to the full and flouts American society’s stuffier conventions. Maude picnics during strangers’ funeral services (where she first meets Harold) and shares her home with Murgatroyd, a seal "liberated" from the local zoo. Her rented flat is filled with borrowed furniture and DayGlo nude portraits of herself. Maude’s passion is for scaling tall trees to admire the sunset and she entrances Harold with her artwork, a box of scents that transports the inhaler to the streets of New York at Christmas.
Hancock’s Maude is magnificently attired and wholly graceful in her performance – at 85, she’s five years older than the character she is portraying on stage. The audience on press night clearly loved seeing the actress on stage once more. While she lacks the pixie-ish energy of the film’s star, Ruth Gordon, Hancock brings a poignancy to the role, and her comic timing is often masterful. Sadly, it’s not enough to make this a successful evening in the theatre. The problems lie with the rest of the cast, who seem to have been chosen solely for their physical resemblance to the original film’s stars and not for their acting ability. It would be cruel to name names; suffice to say that performances across the board veer from flatly dull to shrill and are all too often painfully amateurish.
The decision to have the stage filled nearly all the time with extraneous cast members observing the action, playing instruments and occasionally breaking into song, is a cutesy device that doesn’t come off and makes one hanker instead for the film's Cat Stevens soundtrack. As it is, there are too many bits of absurdist stage business that are designed to amuse but simply don't work. The pacing and tone are unvaried throughout and the ending oddly muffled, instead of being genuinely moving. Hancock was much better served by director Thom Southerland in Grey Gardens in 2016 (another film adaptation, but of more ambitious reach); one has to hope that their next collaboration is more successful and that Hancock, unlike Maude, just keeps right on going.