The 1950 film of ‘Harvey’, starring James Stewart, and directed by Henry Koster, is certainly a hard act to follow. I’d seen the play (by Mary Chase) done by an amateur theatre group before, and found it entertaining. This is the first professional production I had seen, and I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Yes, it takes a while to warm up and get going. Maureen Lipman’s Veta has an American accent which wanders all over the place but then settles into something far less painful, but she is excellent as the fussy woman with aspirations to have a house-full of guests who are not scared away by her odd brother and his friend.
That friend being the Harvey of the title, a large white rabbit, six feet three inches tall, who appeared to our hero, Elwood P Dowd, one evening, just leaning against a lamp-post. He spoke to Elwood by name and commented on the intoxication of his friend, who had just been shepherded away by taxi. And as Elwood tells us, later, he thought nothing of it because ‘when you’ve lived in a town as long as I’ve lived in this one, you get used to the fact that everybody knows your name.’
James Dreyfus, who was so good on television in ‘The Thin Blue Line’ and ‘Gimme, Gimme, Gimme’, is a fine Elwood, a little camp, a little fey, and nothing like Stewart. That’s all to the good. He makes the insane normal and the psychotic likeable, while all the normal people around him seem to be strange.
The thing about ‘Harvey’ as a play is that it has some great lines, whether it is the one about the ‘stranger in the bathtub’, or ‘For years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me’. The characters are well-drawn, if a little ridiculous, and if Elwood and his friend bring the doctor and nurse together, or the burly orderly and the niece, then that’s to the good.
In Lindsay Posner’s new production, there is superb and clever set design by Peter McKintosh, working largely on a revolve, while most of the lines and passages we know so well remain. My particular favourites are the little speech by the taxi driver (here played by Linal Haft, who I recognised immediately from those 1980s BT ads where he played the son of ‘Beattie’, played by … Maureen Lipman), and the description by Elwood of how he gains friends in drinking places.
In fact I will repeat that lovely passage right here: ‘Harvey and I sit in the bars… have a drink or two… play the juke box. And soon the faces of all the other people they turn toward mine and they smile. And they’re saying, “We don’t know your name, mister, but you’re a very nice fella.” Harvey and I warm ourselves in all these golden moments. We’ve entered as strangers – soon we have friends. And they come over… and they sit with us… and they drink with us… and they talk to us. They tell about the big terrible things they’ve done and the big wonderful things they’ll do. Their hopes, and their regrets, and their loves, and their hates. All very large, because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar. And then I introduce them to Harvey… and he’s bigger and grander than anything they offer me. And when they leave, they leave impressed. The same people seldom come back; but that’s envy, my dear’.
There’s an hilarious bit from David Bamber as Dr Chumley, who starts the day hiding in his room and ends it pub-crawling with a brand-new friend who makes him yen for cold beer and a girl who never speaks. And, curiously, this comedy, which started so gingerly, becomes something rather more than fun. It becomes rather moving in its finale. And that is its gift, and Harvey’s.
‘Harvey’ is now on at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. I strongly recommend it.