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.
A complimentary ticket does not necessarily result in a complimentary review, and there were certain members of the audience at Angus Wyatt’s ‘Masters of Show Choir’ event in 2016 that took great exception that I wasn’t effusive with five-star praise (I plumped for three stars in the end). The choirs had put in considerable time and effort into their rehearsals and performances, and some felt I hadn’t acknowledged that properly. It also appears, at least in their minds, that my knowledge of chart music ought to have been nothing short of encyclopaedic before I had even graced (or indeed darkened) the Masters of Show Choir with my presence. My longstanding belief that the proverbial man (or woman or non-binary person) on the Clapham omnibus should be able to walk into a production and appreciate the general gist of it wasn’t enough, apparently. In addition, I ought to have been psychic enough to anticipate what was coming. How dare I be pleasantly surprised by certain performances!
I did, however, receive positive – or at least affirmative – feedback, which in the end outweighed the narcissistic comments (including one that made some personal insults just because I’d managed to confuse the Swansea University Show Choir with the Swansea University Choral Society). Others in the audience seemed to agree with my sentiments, even when I disagreed with a judging decision for one of the three awards on offer. But the fact remains that I wasn’t invited back for 2017, and I whipped out the debit card to nab one of the last remaining tickets for 2018, mostly because I found myself having an upcoming evening free, which is such a rarity these days that I am rather uncomfortable with even the thought of having one. You’d have thought I’d relish the opportunity for downtime, especially as, like everyone else, I’m not getting any younger, but no: I suppose one gets so used to going out that staying in is just plain weird.
It was with some consternation that I discovered this was to be ‘the last ever’; I had assumed when the Arts Theatre website said it would be the last one at their venue, the event would be moving on next year to larger premises, having outgrown the 350 seater playhouse, selling out well in advance. But it transpires this was the last one, for reasons unexplained to the 2018 attendees – it’s not like I’m in the know but have been asked not to say anything. It’s simply that I don’t know the rationale for stopping something that, regardless of my ‘theatre critic’ evaluation of it a couple of years ago, has gone from strength to strength. I can only say it is better for Wyatt to quit whilst he is ahead – to go while he is being urged to stay, rather than the opposite.
Perhaps – and this is not a sentiment I express lightly – he will regret his decision and bring it back at some point after all. (West End Eurovision is a case in point – returning to London in 2018 after a four-year hiatus.) There were ten participating show choirs this year, eight from England and two from Wales. The Js went for the Ss: judges Jacqui Boatswain, Jamie Lambert and Joey Parsad, awarded the runner-up prize to Swansea University Show Choir Society (yes, I looked that up), and the final Masters of Show Choir award to the University of Sussex Show Choir. An additional award, recognising outstanding individual achievement, went to a soloist from Newcastle, who put in a highly engaging rendering of ‘Shadowland’ from The Lion King. There were no outstanding achievements from what I could see, in the sense of there not being anyone who really stood head and shoulders above the rest (a good thing – choirs should function as choirs, not as solo superstars carrying everyone else), so I accept the judges’ decision without further comment.
An observation given to Warwick Glee was one I didn’t notice during their performance, namely that some of their faces looked, and I quote, ‘dead’: they were, let’s be fair, singing Abba’s ‘Chiquitita’ at one point. The stipulation for an ‘a cappella’ number meant there were too many ‘da-da-da’ and ‘do-do-do’ moments during the evening’s proceedings than would have been ideal. A pity that nobody went for ‘There Must Be An Angel (Playing With My Heart)’ – I’d have loved to have seen a show choir going, ‘NA-DA-HEE-DEE-HOO-DOW-HOO-DOW! DAH-DOW! DAH-DOW!’
There’s no doubting the breadth of the performances, with songs from acts as diverse as Bon Jovi to Charlie Puth, Green Day to John Legend, Amy Winehouse to the motion picture The Greatest Showman. Masters of Show Choir certainly went out with a bang: I wish Angus Wyatt all the very best for the future.
Someone in my row remarked on my much-delayed visit to Girl From The North Country that this particular performance had attracted a large number of ‘Bob Dylan fans’. I’m not sure how she reached this conclusion – this was, as far as I could deduce, a regular West End theatregoing crowd. Nobody was sporting Dylan memorabilia, for instance. But I suppose it takes one to know one, and even if she was entirely in the wrong, a sense of comfort taken in apparently being with kindred folk is no bad thing.
The trouble is, I was put off Bob Dylan as far back as my schooldays, when his ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ was used as one of the songs to be used during school assemblies. The school I was attended at the time was phasing out hymns with some vigour, and replacing them with non-religious tunes, of which this Dylan tune was considered suitable. Never mind that Dylan himself had converted to Protestant Christianity, and never mind that we were, as school pupils, too damn juvenile to get our little heads around the deeper metaphors in the questions asked in ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ – although the same could be said of the lyrics in ‘Hymns Ancient and Modern’, first published in 1861.
So, I didn’t know the songs, and frankly I still don’t know them, and I have no desire to get to know them. But for those who do appreciate them more than I do (that is, at all), there’s a lot of tunes from across Dylan’s extensive back catalogue to be enjoyed. The songs, while adding to the live theatrical experience, only really reinforce what has either already been said or is about to be said, but for those who do appreciate them, and recognise them, there’s much to be enjoyed. Still, I found myself occasionally waiting for a song to finish so the plot can carry on.
The renderings of these songs are impressive, and while largely sung in the style of musical theatre, the show is not performed as a musical. The lyrics are seamlessly a part of the script, such that a song will sometimes stop as suddenly as it started, and spoken dialogue resumes without the big (or, at least, definitive) finish and consequent applause that a song written for musical theatre would do. That said, some in the audience couldn’t resist trying to show their appreciation, quite justifiably, though the clapping only then cut across the next lines that would be spoken immediately after the last note of a song, or a portion of a song. It’s simply not a musical, it’s a play with a cast recording available to purchase in the theatre foyer. Or to put it another way, it’s a paradox.
The musical numbers have clearly been carefully selected, and none are incongruent with the narrative at the point at which they appear. That says something about Dylan’s music, given the play’s setting – the Great Depression. It is a very sad story, which Dr Walker (Adam James) narrates, and with one piece of bad news after another, Nick Laine (Ciarán Hinds), the owner and operator of a hotel, is struggling, to put it mildly. There are also opportunities to appreciate actors as musicians, as they supplement the four on-stage band players led by Alan Berry. For example, Bronagh Gallagher’s Mrs Burke sings and plays the drums simultaneously, seemingly effortlessly.
The costumes depict the interwar depression period very well, as does the script. One of the hotel guests, Joe Scott (Arinzé Kene) is subjected to abuse by Nick’s son Gene (Sam Reid), partly as Gene is under the influence of the bottle, and partly because of a societal-level prejudice towards black people that, in the light of the modern-day campaign Black Lives Matter, has never been eradicated to this day despite the civil rights movement a generation ago. It’s gritty, with a plot that proves a little unwieldy, but goodness me, it’s a powerful and poignant production.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.