Given the massive costs of staging a West End production, the producers of Harvey must be pleased that the eponymous star is an imaginary six foot tall white rabbit. I don’t know what the Equity rate for an imaginary six foot tall white rabbit is, but I imagine he’s getting paid less than his human co-stars. Director Lindsay Posner has at least made sure he gets some recognition – at the final curtain call the actors move aside to allow him to join the line up.
Harvey at the Theatre Royal Haymarket is a revival of a play written in 1944 by Mary Chase about well-to-do brother and sister Elwood P. Down and Veta Louise, played by James Dreyfus and Maureen Lipman. Elwood has an imaginary friend, which Society deems OK when you are five, but regards as unacceptable when you are fifty-five.
As the siblings are now middle-aged Elwood’s invisible chum is causing problems. Tired of Elwood’s behaviour – which is entirely pleasant and good-natured, but very rabbit-centric – Veta decides to have him committed to a sanatorium. Confusion and misunderstanding ensue, a comedy of errors that is too obvious to be satisfactory.
The casting is a great success. James Dreyfus as Elwood P. Down is spot-on, playing the part with gusto, innocence and constant smiles. Maureen Lipman is an ideal foil, able to get laughs with just a gesture though it is her disheveled reappearance after an unexpected experience at the sanatarium that is most amusing.
The play may have won a Pulitizer prize back in 1945 but the script is weak. The scripted jokes are generally obvious and the farcical elements are forced, relying on Veta not looking in a certain direction for far too long or Elwood not being allowed to finish his sentences far too many times. But the sets are excellent, two revolving stages that jigsaw to together perfectly whether making a bourgeois panelled library, a sanatorium office or a bar with worn out mirrors.
Your interpretation of what the invisible Harvey represents will colour your enjoyment of the show. At the start it appears to be a mental illness that in Victorian style Veta wants locked up and hidden from her friends. Given it was written during WWII and Chase would have seen the effects of WWI on returning soldiers, Elwood could be suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Seen in such a way the play becomes a rather tasteless, Mental Illness:The Comedy! Further on Harvey seems to be alcoholism, which doesn’t really improve matters.
But later Harvey more clearly represents individuality and freedom. Harvey becomes the hidden side of everyone’s personality that is repressed or hidden under cynicism. Understood like this the story can be enjoyed as a paean to eccentricity. No wonder it is popular in Britain.
Until 2nd May
Thanks also to Official Theatre