I’m a little puzzled as to just why Harvey has been revived at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. It’s a sweet and gentle story, but it is also notable in its total lack of relevance or significance to a modern audience. It is wistful and playful, but stonkingly dated.
Elwood P Dowd has a friend. A best friend in fact. His name is Harvey. They do everything together. The only thing that sets the friends apart from other best buddies is the fact that Harvey happens to be an invisible six foot rabbit in a bow tie. Veta Louise Simmons, his frustrated sister, attempts to have Elwood institutionalised at the local sanatorium. Cue one farce after another; Veta is sectioned by rookie Doctor Sanderson by mistake instead. It transpires that Harvey does indeed exist, as witnessed by senior Doctor Chumley and Veta herself, and Elwood is rescued from permanent behaviour changing treatment before it is too late.
On paper this sounds great. Perhaps that’s why author Mary Coyle Chase won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945. I love a good farce me, all doors slamming open and shut, and bedraggled people with their trousers around their knees etcetera etcetera; think Noises Off or A Flea in Her Ear, both at the Old Vic a few years back. But Harvey lacks this punch. I desperately searched for the laffs. I willed them on. But when they occasionally emerged they were limp and dusty.
A lot of the dialogue (first performed in New York in 1944) feels surplus to requirements, and the production is a little ploddy and clumpy as a result. The fine cast battle bravely on, but even pros such as Maureen Lipman (who I have loved since my first ever trip to the theatre to see Oklahoma! in 1999) and James Dreyfus cannot resuscitate this show.
Lipman is very strong as Veta, and delivers pained expressions and winces with perfect comic timing. Likewise, Dreyfus is bouncy and charming, and even if his womanising stretches the realms of believability slightly, he is loveable throughout. The pair create a strong relationship; it is clear that despite everything, brother and sister love each other very much.
Harvey’s other redeeming feature is the finely crafted set and costume. Peter McKintosh has created a beautiful double revolve set, which takes us seamlessly between the acutely detailed home, hospital and bar. Congratulations also to William Burgess for some lovely pieces of costume, the women’s party dresses and hats in particular.
So Harvey looks good, and contains some great British talent. All the more frustrating therefore that it is, frankly, boring.
Harvey is playing at Theatre Royal Haymarket until 2 May. For tickets and more information, see the Theatre Royal Haymarket website.