This seems to be my week for seeing shows that were made into famous films that I’ve never got round to watching. This time it’s the turn of Harvey, Mary Chase’s 1944 Pulitzer Prize-winner that was made into a 1950 film starring James Stewart. It’s probably just as well I’ve never seen the film, as I’m sure no star actor could live up to Stewart. Seen on its own terms, I did enjoy the play, which I saw thanks to Official Theatre.
Socialite Veta and her daughter Myrtle May are reluctant to entertain guests at their lavish home in case any of them run into Veta’s brother, Elwood P. Dowd. Affable and charming, Dowd has just one, rather large, problem – he is friends with a giant (six feet, three-and-a-half inches) rabbit named Harvey, and has a propensity to introduce his invisible friend to unsuspecting guests. At the end of her tether, Veta finally decides that her brother must be locked up, but when she tries to explain things to the sanatorium doctor he decides that she is the one who needs treatment. Cue a frantic chase around town as the head doctor and his assistants try to find Dowd, who has wandered off along with Harvey.
Directed by Lindsay Posner, with a lavish and beautifully designed set by Peter McKintosh, the play exudes period charm and there is never any real sense of threat. Apparently Chase wrote the play to calm and reassure audiences in the shadow of the Second World War, but I couldn’t help thinking that there was a much darker play here waiting to get out (something like Donnie Darko perhaps?) Nevertheless, taken on its own terms it is an appealing piece.
James Dreyfus plays Elwood P. Dowd with charm and appeal. He invests the character with warmth and an interest in everyone around him. Seeming perfectly “normal” except for the business of the invisible rabbit, his character has a relaxed approach to life that the other characters could learn from (and many of them do). Maureen Lipman displays bite and excellent comic timing in her role as Veta, combining a selfish preoccupation for her social standing with genuine concern for her troubled brother. Ingrid Oliver is also good in her role as the less likeable Myrtle May: like Veta she is worried about her social position, but unlike her she shows no real concern for her uncle’s welfare. There are strong performances too from David Bamber as the head doctor, Chumney, Jack Hawkins as his junior, Sanderson, and Sally Scott as nurse Ruth Kelly.
I thought that some parts of the play were a little slow, but other scenes upped the pace and were very funny. Overall, while Harvey does not break new ground or revolutionise theatre, it’s a gentle, warm play with strong performances which is well worth seeing.