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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
HARVEY
at Haymarket Theatre

UNLOVEABLE ECCENTRIC
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  Maureen Lipman and Jack Hawkins/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

I have to confess, right up front, that I have never favourably responded to whimsy or to screwball comedy – either on stage or on screen. Long-running plays such as Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace and Mary Chase’s Harvey – which, in 1944 ran on Broadway for 1,444 and 1,775 performances, respectively – bring out the curmudgeon in me, including a 1975 West End revival of the latter that starred James Stewart, no less, who also appeared in the popular 1950 film version.
 
In the present revival currently in residence at the Haymarket, James Dreyfus takes the starring role, and he’s just not up to the task. He plays Elwood P. Dowd, a lovably eccentric, endearingly amiable bachelor (and incipient alcoholic, though not much is made of this) whose inseparable companion is an invisible six-foot-plus white rabbit called Harvey. For the play to stand on its two feet without collapsing into an arthritic heap, Elmer has to have oodles of charm – and star quality. From his first appearance he has to woo the audience onto his side and away from his embarrassed social-climbing sister Veta Louise (Maureen Lipman) and her equally intolerant daughter Myrtle Mae (Ingrid Oliver), whose sole purpose is to see Elwood permanently confined to a local loony bin. In this production you can’t blame them for wanting him put away.
 
The plot pivots on Veta Louise being confined to a sanitarium instead of her brother and the farcical mayhem that ensues when the resident psychiatrists (Jack Hawkins and David Bamber) realise their mistake. Watching the tedious first half unfurl under Lindsay Posner’s clunky direction, I found myself losing the will to live. Not only did I not laugh once, I didn’t crack a smile. The creaky mechanics of the plot irritated rather than amused, and the majority of the performers, including Lipman, who on occasion seemed somewhat hesitant with her lines, all could have been understudies.
 
Things perk up marginally in the second half when Chase adds a semi-serious dimension to her play. With Elwood finally in the clutches of the psychiatrists, he is about to be administered an injection that will cure him of his eccentricity and at the same time remove the very qualities that make him so warm and appealing. Chase’s “message” – that the world needs its harmless eccentrics and is a better place because of them – is hardly seismic. But for audiences to agree and respond accordingly, they need to have fallen in love with Elmer from the outset. They don’t, and as a result, this heavy-going revival is hardly likely to take the town.
 
It’s almost impossible to believe that not only did Harvey win the 1944 Pulitzer Prize for drama, it beat out Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie for the top prize. Go figure.

 


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