To say that this most gentle and innocent of cosy comedies is anything other than lovely seems to be a little like saying I don’t like puppies and my favourite past time is kicking kittens. It is undoubtedly one of the most kindly, well meaning and inoffensive plays to currently be gracing any of the West End stages. It is also though one of the dreariest and least engaging plays that I have come across in a very long time.
Its pedigree is in no doubt. Based on the classic James Stewart film and with a high calibre cast that includes national treasure Maureen Lipman there is no reason it shouldn’t succeed other than its dated story goes no where and doesn’t know if it wants to be a full on comedy or a social commentary about the nature of nice and non-conformity.
Elwood P Dowd is the amiable and sufferably happy and friendly brother to social has-been yet still wannabe Veta Louise Simmons. So amiable is he that everyone absurdly tolerates the fact that he walks around talking to his invisible best friend, a 6’3″ rabbit called Harvey. When the family’s patience finally snaps and they try to admit him to the local mental institution the comedy ratchets up to, well not a lot a really. The comic turn is that it is Veta that ends up being locked up and not her batty brother. There then follows a few chases across town and a bit of mistaken identity which at its funniest only ever manages to give a slight up turn to the mouth rather than pulling in any belly laughs.
Even the exquisite timing and deliciously wry comic skills of Lipman fail to bring this to life. She still fills the stage with the presence that you expect from such a pro but ultimately it is the material that slows her down. In the absence of James Dreyfus as Elwood it is David Morley Hale that has the task of bringing some believability to a man that talks to an invisible rabbit. He manages to make him likeable and unobjectionable but there is no real feeling of either sympathy or understanding aimed at him. This is a man who has clear mental health issues, none of which are explained or explored. This would be fine if instead they were punching for comedy, but this doesn’t appear to happen either.
The fine group of actors that fill the support roles work hard but leave you thinking that their talents are being wasted. RSC stalwart Desmond Barrit and that always engaging David Bamber are never stretched and fail to find any depth to there Judge and Doctor characters. This is a real shame.
In the programme notes producer Don Gregory is quoted as saying that “the only way he would allow this play to be done is if it is not updated” He is right in saying that values are timeless, unfortunately comedy, performance and drama are not and Harvey suffers desperately for that.