Reviewed by Helen McWilliams
Many among you will know actor, James Drefus for creating memorable roles Tom Farrell in ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’ and PC Goody in ‘The Thin Blue Line’, however his latest role as Elwood P Dowd in the moving and imaginative stage play ‘Harvey’ has certainly shaken off those ‘type casts’.
Written by Mary Chase and directed by Lindsay Posner, this play has a canny way of toying with the audience’s emotions as it takes you on a journey of wonder. ‘Harvey’, we learn, is a white rabbit of over six foot tall who exists in Mr Dowd’s imagination – or does he? On the face of it, the story could be considered a charming tale of a middle-aged man and his imaginary friend. Delving deeper into the complexity of the central characters, causes one to consider, is ‘Harvey’ in fact some sort of divine intervention. This path could lead to the conclusion that the rabbit is indeed, a ‘pooka’, which is certainly what Mr Dowd claims. Of course, there’s also the added intrigue that ‘Harvey’ does not seem to appear to one person, alone. The play is pulled back from the brink of working on the level of a children’s story by dealing with the reality of mental health, which was handled in a much more barbaric fashion in the 1950s. However, the setting of the sanatorium does not detract from the humour, indeed comedy is present in abundance.
The set is adaptable and notably stunning in places, with an eye for detail at every turn. It seamlessly creates the relevant back-drops for the family home where Dowd resides with his sister and niece, the sanatorium and Charlie’s bar, Dowd and Harvey’s favourite haunt.
With a touch of magic coupled with superb technical ability from Drefus, we are led to believe that we can ‘see’ this creature. Joining him in the strong cast are David Bamber (Mr Collins from the BBC’s adaptation of ‘Pride & Prejudice, among many other credits) who excelled as the pompous and controlling Psychiatrist, Dr Chumley, with Felicity Dean putting in a tremendous performance as his wife Betty. Clearly intimidated by her husband, the character of Betty is somewhat under-utilised, but we were delighted to have the opportunity to see Dean on stage, as we already know her from many television programmes including ‘Midsomer Murders’ and ‘Rosemary & Thyme’. There are some entertaining moments between Dowd’s niece, Myrtle Mae (Ingrid Oliver) and assistant from the sanatorium, Duane Wilson (Youssef Kerkour). There is also a flourishing love story between Dr Sanderson (Jack Hawkins) and Nurse Kelly (Sally Scott) which provides a distraction from the over-riding ‘madness’ and is played beautifully by both actors concerned.
What can we say about Maureen Lipman (playing Dowd’s sister, Veta Simmons) that hasn’t been said before? It’s fair to say that she usually guarantees a sterling performance and she didn’t disappoint. Lipman’s chemistry with Drefus is exceptional and she cuts a fine comedy duo, with Bamber in their scenes, too. With Dreyfus as the over-excitable brother who is easily influenced by his invisible companion and Lipman as the flappable sister who also ‘sees’ the pooka, this casting is a force to be reckoned with, indeed.
‘Harvey’ is a must-see (pardon the pun!) and continues at The Birmingham Repertory Theatre until Saturday 21st February, before its west end transfer the play will also take in Malvern and Richmond – so there are plenty of opportunities to catch it.