The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 10th February, 2015
Mary Chase’s 1944 play is better known for the James Stewart film version – this revival reveals a sharper script from a female playwright, that rare beast (especially in those days).
It tells the story of a widow and her daughter who live with their brother and uncle respectively, one Elwood P Dowd. The man causes them no end of social embarrassment because of his best friend, the eponymous Harvey. The problem is Harvey is a (to us) invisible white rabbit over six feet tall. The widow tries to get her brother committed to a sanatorium so that the house will become hers – and a slew of comic incidents ensues, involving mistaken identity and some farcical running around.
The upshot is a delightful, charming and very funny evening, expertly played by a company with faultless comic timing.
Maureen Lipman is dream casting as the widow Veta, conveying her stress-induced dottiness along with some beautifully nuanced physical comedy. As disgruntled daughter and proto-teenager Myrtle Mae, Ingrid Oliver brings humour and a touch of Forties chic. There is a host of strong character actors: Amanda Boxer makes an impression as Miss Chauvenet, and Linal Haft makes the most of his cameo as an embittered cab driver. In the ‘meatier’ roles, Youssef Kerkour is a hoot as hired muscle Wilson: an imposing presence, Kerkour uses his physicality to contrast with his character’s softer side.
The excellent David Bamber’s Dr Chumley works himself up into a froth in hilarious scenes, sustaining this heightened delivery and displaying a nice line in double takes, while Jack Hawkins and Sally Scott play doctor-and-nurse and add to the confusion attractively.
James Dreyfus in the James Stewart role of Elwood lends his characterisation a laid-back, camp manner and it works like a charm. His offhand gestures to his unseen friend help us to ‘see’ the rabbit. Elwood is sweet, open-hearted and generous – when it is revealed that Dr Chumley’s cure will suppress not only his hallucinations but his good nature, making Elwood just like a normal human being (“and you know what bastards they are”) it is decided that a giant rabbit is not such a bad thing to have around the house after all. The most important thing is to be kind, the play reminds us.
PeterMcKintosh’s substantial yet revolving set grounds the action in its own reality, lending credibility to the settings so that Elwood and Harvey seem more at odds with this ‘normality’. Matthew Scott’s lovely, wistful music gives the transitions a bittersweet feel, perhaps lamenting that the world isn’t like the play but we wish it was; to have Elwoods and Harveys around would make the world a better place.
Director Lindsay Posner keeps things ticking along at a sometimes gentle pace – some moments could do with a bit more intensity to accentuate the farcical aspects, but the cast are allowed to have their head and, above all, Chase’s sparkling script is revealed as an overlooked jewel of a comedy. A feel-good piece that tickles the imagination as much as the funny bone.