On Tuesday 10th February I had the immense pleasure of seeing Harvey at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Originally written by Mary Coyle Chase in 1942, Harvey has gone through many transformations, and even been the centre of a Hollywood film, but the REP’s production of this classic and timeless story was done in a stylish and effortless manner that introduced a new era to the wonderful characters.
For those unfamiliar to the “tail”, the plot goes that Harvey is the best friend of Mr Elwood P.Dowd (charmingly played by James Dreyfus). The catch is however, that Harvey is a six-foot pooka (a faery spirit in the form of a rabbit) who is invisible to the eye to all except Dowd. His sister, and her young daughter, wish to have him sent to a psychiatric ward, and due to the elements of farce and commedia dell’arte in the play, it is Miss Veta Simmons (played by the wonderful Maureen Lipman) who is admitted by mistake. As the play progresses, the hijinks continue, and the audience are taken on a journey filled with laughs and tears.
Chase created the play in backlash to the Second World War, as a means to bring comfort to those affected by the tragic years just past, and this drive to spread joy is clear within the story of Harvey. Producer Don Gregory said about the play “It’s not a play about a six-foot rabbit. It’s a play about believing in something other than the externals of life”, and I think this wonderfully sums it up. Despite critics accusing the play of being “too American” to work for UK audiences, the heart-warming tale and message of belief was certainly easy to transpose over into this country.
The staging at the REP was beautiful, and transported the audience into the home of P.Dowd and Harvey. The use of rotating stage meant transitioning between the locations of the play was done with gentle ease. What brought the story alive though was the talented star-filled cast, special credit going to Maureen Lipman, who was lovable as Veta. Despite herself being quoted in an interview that she dislikes this seemingly selfish character, Lipman managed to bring out a relatable side in the role and add depth to what could have been a one sided portrayal. Yet it was truly James Dreyfus who captured the hearts of the audience as the lovable P.Dowd, his bumbling mannerisms and chivalrous gestures warmed us to his presence from the moment he entered the stage.
Overall, this revival of Harvey managed to breathe fresh life into the long-lost and loved play, and captured the simple natured humour and charming story of belief and understanding in a wonderful way.
If you missed the performance at the REP, the production has recently finished its UK tour, and is now performing at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London, where it’ll remain until the 2nd of May 2015.