There’s a proverb that goes something like “A man who chases two rabbits catches none”. ‘Harvey’ features just the one rabbit (named Harvey) but he’s chased by two men, three women and a couple of psychiatrists to make up for that. And he’s invisible. But does Lindsay Posner’s revival of Mary Chase’s play have more success than that proverbial man? Well yes and no. It is a difficult play, seesawing awkwardly between a cutesy comedy and a farce with its stuffing taken out, but to Posner’s credit he gives it a good go.
‘Harvey’ is one eventful day in the life of a particularly eccentric middle class American family. Maureen Lipman stars as Vita L. Simmonds, wrapped in furs and airs and graces, whose social aspirations are repeatedly scuppered by her troublesome brother Elwood P Dowd (James Dreyfus) and his friend, Harvey, a six foot three and a half tall rabbit ‘pooka’ (a mischievous spirit from Celtic mythology). After Elwood and Harvey sabotage her soiree, an exasperated Vita delivers them to the Sanitorium only to get committed herself. Once the doctors realise their mistake they set out in search of the jovial bachelor and his hallucination, chasing him through dive bars armed with questions plucked from a Freud textbook. But Harvey chooses when to be found and first he has some lessons to teach them.
‘Harvey’ has a great cast, particularly the two leads. Lipman’s Vita is all high-pitched hysteria and dry humour, while Dreyfus has great fun with Elwood, his comic timing is absolutely spot on. The problem is that it’s all a bit too nice. The set is nice, the music is nice, the pretty receptionist is nice. There’s no real excitement in the first half at all and it frequently feels flat, dated and stretched out.
However, the play has a big heart and seems perfectly satisfied with being just nice. ‘Harvey’ reminds us that what’s really important in life isn’t always what’s visible to the naked eye. The pace does pick up and by the time the invisible rabbit is doing his curtain call you might not have laughed out loud but you’ll almost certainly have a smile on your face.