Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Theatre review: Harvey

"There's a bit of Harvey in all of us!" says the poster tagline, which is patently untrue because not everybody eats rabbit. Mary Chase's play won the Pulitzer Prize, proving that at one time you could do so with a play that wasn't about racism in suburbia - admittedly that time was 1944, and it's hard not to go into the Theatre Royal Haymarket for Harvey with a sense of trepidation. Especially since one of the press quotes chosen to sell the show essentially says Peter McKintosh's set looks quite expensive. The play has unquestionably dated, but it's hard to entirely dislike: Veta (Maureen Lipman) is hoping to marry off her daughter Myrtle May (Ingrid Oliver,) but she's worried suitors will be put off by the family eccentric, who controls all the money: Elwood (James Dreyfus) is friendly and generous, but he's also accompanied most of the time by a pooka, a Celtic mischief spirit who takes the form of a six-foot white rabbit called Harvey, whom only Elwood can see. Veta has finally had enough of her brother's delusion, and tries to get him sectioned in Dr Chumley's (David Bamber) asylum.

This being a 1940s screwball comedy, misunderstandings quickly ensue and it's Veta who gets dragged away to be hosed down by a burly orderly (Youssef Kerkour.) But then exactly who gets to be called sane or insane is part of the point of Chase's play.

It's hard to write about Harvey without using the word "gentle" several times per sentence, as that's very much what territory we're in; no belly laughs, but a few chuckles. Lindsay Posner's production is strongly cast - Desmond Barrit's comic talents are rather wasted as the family's lawyer - but misses what few opportunities there are to give the piece a bit more bite: Elwood's behaviour can edge towards the creepy, Veta's money-grabbing motive for getting her brother sectioned is hinted at, and throwaway comments about shock treatment aren't exactly the laugh-a-minute they presumably were in 1944, but it's all played straight.

So we're left with a museum piece, but at least one whose heart is in the right place. Elwood's eccentricity is largely built around him trying to make people happy - he spends much of the play matchmaking the studly Dr Sanderson (Jack Hawkins) with his underappreciated nurse Ruth (Sally Scott.) Best known for its 1950 film adaptation, Harvey might have been best left that way, as something to stumble over on TV on a rainy afternoon. I'm not sure where the audience is for a big-ish-budget stage revival - judging from the tumbleweed blowing around TRH tonight, there isn't one.

Harvey by Mary Chase is booking until the 2nd of May at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

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