DOWN WITH REALITY! UP WITH THE RABBIT!
“I’ve wrestled with reality for all of my life” says our hero roundly “and I’m happy to say that I’ve finally won out over it”.
It says a lot about the mood of 1945 that Mary Chase’s play won the Pulitzer. A time weary of wartime realities and needing a laugh, pixillated by the scientific mysteries of Einstein and the philosophical uncertainties of Matter, nervous of know-all psychiatry in the age of the lobotomy… The clues are all there in this featherlight charm of a cheer-up farce. And cheer it does in Lindsay Posner’s Birmingham production, lovingly staged a Peter McKintosh’s double-revolve set. The opulent library turns into a private psychiatric clinic and – most affectionately period-perfect of all – into Charlie’s Bar.
If the classic film passed you by – as it did me – the plot is simple to relate. Elwood P.Dowd, heir to an affluent house, lives with his socialite sister Veta and her discontented daughter Myrtle Mae, who she needs to launch on society. This plan is jeopardized by the embarrassing fact that Elwood goes everywhere with an invisible, 6ft 3 rabbit called Harvey, who he first hallucinated one night after a drinking session. Veta wants him committed to a private asylum; cross-purposes develop (beautifully done, just this side of incredibility) and she gets locked up instead. On her release a chase across the city culminates in the senior psychiatrist himself becoming unhinged, and Veta not far from it.
Given the utter benignity of the rabbit’s familiar, this is unsurprising . Why be sane when you can be a carefree radiator of innocent joy? James Dreyfus catches Elwood’s mixture of affable kindliness and potty conviction, sociably open to his family and random new friends (even matchmaking) while gesturing and chatting to Harvey with perfect ease . He’s a delight. But the central comedy engine of the piece is Veta – certainly when played , with perfect tittupping neurosis and fabulous comedic explosions, by Maureen Lipman. Her account of being manhandled by the beefy male nurse (Youssef Kerkour) has her quivering with outrage from dishevelled wig to ripped stocking. “He sat me in a tub of water.” Lipman says in her refined tones, then comes back with full-strength satisfaction “- BUT I FOUGHT!”. Her drop-dead timing wins even the simplest line. When the pompous judge (Desmond Barrit) says soothingly “This is your daughter and I am your lawyer” her snapped “I know which is which!” brings the house down. Magic.
Yet it isn’t laugh-a-line farce, and its real heart lies not only in Veta’s final conversion (again, Lipman convinces and delights) but in a gentle scene in Charlie’s bar where Ellwood expands with sweet smugness on his barfly lifestyle: enjoying the music, sinking highballs, introducing new people to Harvey. Just chillin’, as we say now. The echo of that yearning is in the last scene, when the once pompous psychiatrist (David Bamber) drunkenly begs Ellwood to ask Harvey for the life he really wants: a woodland in Akron, some cold beers and a last fling with a quiet woman. A weary, 1940 world’s dream.
box office 0121 236 4455 http://www.birmingham-rep.co.uk to 21 feb
then TOURING – London in March!