The Theatreguide.London Review
Haymarket Theatre Spring 2015
Mary Chase's gentle comedy was a big Broadway hit in 1944, which probably tells us more about 1944 than anything else.
Wartime New York was evidently hungry for whimsy, gentle satire of small town life, reassurance that psychiatry is bunk and everything will turn out right in the end, and more whimsy.
Seventy years later, I fear that too many will find too little here, delivered too slowly for modern tastes.
Elwood P. Dowd is a gentleman of middle years living on an inheritance that frees him from work or any other responsibilities. He is an instant friend to everyone he meets, no stranger to the pleasures of alcoholic libations, and boon companion to Harvey, a six-foot talking rabbit that only he can see and hear.
It is because of Elwood's insistence on including Harvey in all social encounters that his sister and niece, both eager to rise in their small-town society, feel that Elwood and Harvey might more happily be housed in the local loony bin.
After some half-hearted and mainly offstage farce generated by the doctors' confusion as to just who in the family is to be locked away, Elwood charms everybody and – teeny spoiler alert – he and Harvey are free to continue on their happy way.
There are some legitimate jokes in Chase's script, but not nearly enough, and you have to slow your internal clock way down not to find things moving along at far too slow a pace.
Director Lindsay Posner hasn't solved that problem in this revival from the Birmingham Rep, nor has he inspired his actors to more than going-through-the-paces stock company performances.
James Dreyfus as Elwood and Maureen Lipman as his sister are both comic performers of great skill and charm, but they are each so thoroughly type-cast here that it is safe to say that neither is stretched an inch as an actor. They could play these roles in their sleep, and I'm afraid that at moments they seem to be doing just that.
Lipman gets by on generic bustling about, with too little hint of either dottiness or meanness that would give the woman some identity.
Dreyfus does reach for a characterisation, though it's an odd one. He affects a backward-leaning posture and walk that is evidently meant to be a drunkard's stagger but looks more like a fat man's waddle without the fat.
And Dowd's essential innocence and good will are too often undercut by suggestions of a knowingness and even cynicism that imply that the character is playing a private joke on everyone and inwardly sneering at them for falling for it.
That might make this a very different and darker play entirely, if anything else in the production supported it. But in isolation those hints of something approaching malice just confuse the matter and seriously weaken the play's core in the image of innocent good will conquering all.
No one else in the cast gives a performance or establishes a presence that will remain in your mind once you've left the theatre.
This play is safe. There is nothing in it to upset your maiden aunt (Do they make maiden aunts anymore?). If you know someone for whom Phantom is too scary, Les Miz's politics too radical and Shakespeare In Love too bawdy, this is the ideal show to take – or, better yet, send – them to.
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Review - Harvey - Haymarket Theatre 2014