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Review

Harvey, written in 1944, rode on the wave of the Golden Age of entertainment when American decency, ambition, achievement and success were key values. By 1944 Americans had become allergic to misery, and a frothy feel-good play where all-American values come out on top was just what was needed. Not insignificantly, one of its most lasting stars, James Stewart, was himself an embodiment of Yankee grit and determination and a prominent war hero. It is a very American play, in a very American context, and Matthew Phelan's decision to make it British was somewhat intrepid.

t is a play that could not be written now, due to changes of attitudes about delusional states and so on. (For example, it's uncomfortable hearing people called loonies now.) Having said that and taking it on its own terms, I believe this cast did very well to bring out most of the comedy of the original, with some added laughs at the expense of English social climbing and embarrassment. The come-uppance of the pompous - here a chief psychiatrist at a mental hospital - is always a good comic story.

At the Bull, the benignly happy and largely drunken man with the imaginary bunny as his friend was played with great aplomb by Stiofan Lanigan O'keeffe. Striding, or rather shambling, through all the scenes of the play like a larger than life Noddy, indefatigably polite, deferential and generous, with a wide-eyed child-like innocence (or was it?), his performance as Elwood P. Dowd was masterly.

Mary Musker as his social-minded, hysterically embarrassed sister, dreading Elwood's insistence on introducing the rabbit Harvey, entertained us with a gamut of responses, facial, verbal and even totally physical. Her pre-war hairstyle and matronly gown helped to convince us that she was a generation older than her daughter, but Mary's youthfulness and vitality worked a little against the image of an august and pretentious hostess getting humiliated. But Mary's voice and projection are commanding, and her outrage reclaimed the territory.

The daughter Myrtle Mae was played as a self-centred, wily and bossy young woman, brimming with unfulfilled romantic intensity, by Zara Kauffer who left no stone unturned as her eager eye fixed on one man after another. A very funny and competent performance.

The stream of young men on loan from the Incognitos as Myrtle's eye-candy revealed a great pool of talent - Luke Murray as the wrong-footed assistant doctor, David Parsons as the kind of ward orderly you would avoid, and Michael Reece as the sage taxi driver who turned out to be the chorus to the swelling act. Drug injections, he opined, would make Elwood a "perfectly normal human being, and you know what bastards they are!" All these chaps - Luke as the instigator of the comedy of errors and one half of the hilarious doctor-nurse romantic double-act which got neither of them anywhere, David as thug, confidant of the psychiatrist, and yet a boy who preferred a ham sarnie to a snog, and Michael in his brief but timely intervention to bring on the play's conclusion - did sterling work.

The nurse was played in a most engaging way by Emma Jane Sullivan (unaccountably in heels). She was cow-eyed in her devotion, slow-witted, and yet an important engineer of the plot, and was a delight to watch.

I really enjoyed the appearances of a fox-furred Natalie White as the psychiatrist's neglected but feisty wife, and Diana Bromley as the chic-ly fashionable, astonished aunt who does an impressive double take at Harvey's first entrance but affects to know nothing about what Elwood's parents had failed to revealed to Veta about his rodent pal.

Gerry Zierler was given, or took, a Viennese identity as the chef psychiatrist, which in my opinion was a single joke extended two hours beyond its utility, and was not used in any meaningful way. Far better would have been to make him resemble Freud, with a picture of him and Freud side by side. Perhaps, then let it go. However, full marks to Gerry, he carried off a difficult transition from pompous and self righteous, to drunken and deluded very well indeed, and was a strong presence on the stage but I think the accent mitigated a little against the full measure of the collapse of his dignity and authority.  

Geoff Prutton as the family lawyer was sage, square and authoritative, but needed to convince me more that he was much older. I'd have liked his temples greyed, and spectacles, and perhaps a 1950s moustache.

Ally Goldberg played the maid - welcome to her and I do assure her: if you stick with it, maids move on to become juvenile leads or their confidantes.

This team worked together well to produce a fast-moving comedy, which at times lacked pace, I suspect mainly due to doorways. Did this actually need any doors at all, part from perhaps a door to Gerry's office?

Costumes were great and the hand of Frances Musker was very evident. Matronly frocks, print A-line dresses, portentous costumes, and a zany nurse outfit all worked well, and Elwood's iconically loud sports jacket hit the spot perfectly.

The set was, as Matthew says in the programme, the least important thing - just as well as, although it looked pretty good and was very functional with no furniture changes required, I thought it looked hurried and a bit unfinshed. I do strongly commend the picture change (the late chatelaine and then the psychiatrist and finally Elwood with Harvey), presented by projection, and ultimately as a video - a good touch. This was much slicker than the set changes and it was a mistake leaving the same pot plant in two locations unless it became the object of another joke ("No, that's not lettuce, Harvey").

I want to sound a note of caution. When updating a play into another environment - in this case a move from 1944 America to 1950s England - don't be too timid, go the whole hog, cut out words and phrases that destroy your intention, take a bold approach. In Harvey I felt I needed Americanisms changed - pub for bar, the names of the same (pub names can be equally funny); cut out "Judge" - mister would have been as good if reworked a little; the continual use of Myrtle Mae's second name rang false; "telephone you back" for "call you"; sanatarium should definitely have been changed to hospital. And the Ella Fitzgerald and Satchmo version of Dream a Liitte Dream of Me (a 1930s song) should have been replaced by some 1950s English pop hit - I did think Alma Cogan singing You Me and Us would have been sweeter, but that's just me, something British anyway.

But that's a longish list of really quite small points. It was a good night out and we saw a very funny play, and for some this would have been the experience that their parents and grandparents had as playgoers or cinema goers in the 1950s to 70s. Coming out feeling better and smiling is always a great thing and Matthew Phelan more than pulled off his first major production for GST.

Review by Tony Newton

This is a review of Harvey

The original review is here: GST Newsreel #96 14 April 2014