by Mary Chase
What's Up Doc?
The pastel coloured, chubby-cheeked winged cherubs of the rococo Theatre Royal ceiling, floating in their nappies around the rose chandelier, seemed to have an earth-bound twin as TLT and motorised companion watched Mary Chase’s American 1944 play "Harvey" from up in the gods.
A chubby-cheeked cherubic James Dreyfus as amiable alcoholic but financially well-endowed Elwood P Dowd ambled on and it also struck us “Harvey” has all the elements of an eighteenth century sentimental comedy of manners.
Such plays often have the threat of the “family” (usually males) having the (usually female) beneficiary of family money detained. So bedlam may lurk beneath the shenanigans of wooing before eventual final act resolution.
Except that eighteenth century plays such as She Stoops to Conquer or The Rivals don’t often, if ever, include a six-foot-plus, invisible, “pooka” rabbit, the eponymous Harvey, with or without knee breeches and tricorne hat.
And Elwood remains resolutely set on the bachelor life, while still reading out loud Jane Austen’s famous Pride and Prejudice dictum, “... a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
Yet this Janus-faced play (and later movie), as has been noted, could equally well look forward towards Joe Orton’s high-octane 1960s’ carry-on What The Butler Saw.
Elwood, to the shame of sibling Veta (Maureen Lipman) and niece Myrtle Mae (Ingrid Oliver), both eager to fit in with the town’s social elite (embodied in a brief but memorable performance by Amanda Boxer), not only fritters his life away in local bars but claims an invisible lanky bunny as his drinking companion.
Veta and Myrtle Mae therefore seize the chance to take control of family finances aided by family attorney and town judge Omar Gaffney (Desmond Barrit). The dream of selling up and moving away, leaving their relative, they fondly imagine, in the considerate hands of the psychiatrists at the local private asylum, seems within their grasp.
But the best laid plans go awry. Callow young psychiatrist Lyman Sanderson (Jack Hawkins) is let loose by negligent hands-off boss Dr Chumley (David Bamber) on town citizens. Sanderson wrongly assumes the family seeks relief from its elderly female relative, Veta rather than the hallucinating Elwood.
Veta does eventually escape permanent incarceration. But only when lax Chumley, married to a blonde bombshell (Felicity Dean), while preferring his women prone and silent, realises the possible consequences of illegal detention. The rest of the action revolves around the psychiatrists seeking to contain liability supported by bewildered Duane, the heavy of an asylum orderly (a galumphingly charming Youssef Kerkour) and compliant young nurse Ruth Kelly (Sally Scott).
All of which, set down so plainly, makes the play seem a much darker comedy than it plays in Lindsay Posner’s gently sedate production, staged with an affectively detailed music box turntable of a set designed by Peter McKintosh.
James Dreyfus, after a self conscious start, settles into his role and eventually convinces as the tippler allowed free licence in the town. Linal Haft gives a pleasing cameo as cab driver who acts as the 20th century equivalent of the deus ex machina. Maureen Lipman and David Bamber as Elwood’s sister and chief psychiatrist respectively give polished performances but, like the whole production, are hampered by pedestrian pacing.
The grim reality, compared to theatrical comedy, of such “private” parish detentions without trial must now be archaic tragedies in Britain with medical records the property of a boss accountable to all of us, the Secretary of State for Health
Still, on the day we attended the trials and tribulations of Elwood P Dowd and his sister Veta, the family of a woman activist murdered in Afghanistan reportedly were told to claim by police she was mentally ill to avoid reprisals against them.
It seems stories like Harvey still have the barbs to reflect current events, but the dark undercurrents are muffled in the stately pacing of this production. So don’t sell your grandmother to buy a ticket, but there’s enough there to keep an audience watching, if not entirely engrossed, and wondering what a sharper production would reveal. An amber light.