If it wasn’t for cinematic evidence to the contrary, you might believe Mary Chase wrote the part of Elwood P. Dowd specifically for James Dreyfus. The role of the gently polite, urbane and thoroughly charming chap fits him perfectly. He looks like a portly Stan Laurel as he wanders casually around the stage, handing out his business cards and making complete sense….but for his imaginary six foot, furry friend.
Harvey the large white rabbit has become the stuff of legend since Chase created him as a cheery antidote to the tragedies of World War 2. He has come to symbolise hope in troubled times and the unalienable right of the individual to believe in what they wish to believe in – even big bunnies.
Yet the basis of this legend is but a humble, comfy sit. com. which reminded me last night of an early episode of ‘I Love Lucy’.
Elwood is embarrassing. He takes his invisible friend with him everywhere, introducing him to guests at society parties and buying him drinks in bars. But he is also rich and his live-in sister and her daughter seek to have him sectioned for both peace of mind and financial gain. The neat twist is when the staff at the sanatorium make a mistake about who is madder than who.
The other piece of perfect casting in Lindsay Posner’s production is Maureen Lipman. She’s less frenetic than Lucile Ball and therefore all the more engaging as the dippy American ma’am.
Her comic acting is effortless and her timing immaculate. The two talents combine sublimely when she finally spots that Elwood has swapped a family painting for one of he and Harvey. She holds the double take perfectly.
It is also very good to see the RSC’s Desmond Barrit in the supporting role of the weighty judge. Calibre actors playing cameos is always a good sign.
It’s the sort of show that slowly reels you in. As other characters begin to ‘see’ Harvey – so he starts to appear in your imagination too. A door swings silently open without cause, and there he is! He goes missing and (being invisible) he’s difficult to find. It’s all a bit worrying. The implication they’d like to purvey is that there’s a little bit of Harvey in all of us. Maybe we’re all a little mad on the quiet
To my relatively rational mind, the deep philosophical acumen attributed to the play doesn’t stand close scrutiny; after all it is just a slight domestic comedy. But it is a lovely evening and you are securely in master craftsmen’s hands. And paws. For, at the final curtain, there’s a space left in the line up for the eponymous hero. So maybe I did begin to ‘believe’ after all. I blame the bunny.
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