By Mary Chase
Since the human story began, the idiot-savant has always been an intriguing type, a seeming fool who has an insight and grasp of profound truth but who cannot fir into the ordinary “sane” world. Dustin Hoffman played one in Rain Man, and Peter Sellers in Being There, but before them a much simpler example of the type was brought to the stage in 1944 by a woman called Mary Chase, who wrote a play called Harvey to cheer up a woman whose son had been lost while on active service. Not only did it achieve its aim, it also won the Pulitzer Prize that year and ran for an unprecedented 1175 performances.
Presumably times were simpler then, because the film version of 1950 became James Stewart’s best-loved movies and immediately became a cult classic.
A classic it may be, but it didn’t do much for me. I couldn’t raise a single laugh because, frankly, the idea of a kindly eccentric dimwit walking around with a giant-sized invisible white rabbit just isn’t funny any more. When it’s a cute creative four-year-old, yes, but when it’s a guy who has lived with his mother all his life and takes to rabbit-walking when she dies, you have to worry.
And although you can’t really sympathise with his sister, who is trying to commit him to the loony-bin (there are a lot of men in white coats in this play, as well as a slightly sinister German doctor with a Brunhilde wife), you have to admit that he does muck up her social life, which seems to consist of holding Wednesday Forums and trying to marry off her daughter, an extremely unappealing creature even when you make allowance for her psychedelic mini-skirts teamed with red tights and white vinyl platform boots.
Yes, that’s another problem. Why set this tired old Forties’ clumper in the Sixties? Maybe the costumes were funnier then (yes, I remember, I remember), but some of the sillinesses of the play, such as committing a harmless eccentric on the say-so of his sister, were well gone 20 years later. And I don’t think pop songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “He’s my Brother” add much to our understanding of the play’s rationale, which seems to be that if people are harmless eccentrics, why not leave them alone? Live and let live is an admirable motto for life, but this play doesn’t really go anywhere with the idea.
The cast try hard, but they’re out of their depth with this play – it’s too old-fashioned, too predictable, too badly-written and too stereotyped to work in anything but the hands of cutting-edge practitioners. And that’s the trouble with the old chestnuts, like Charley’s Aunt and Arsenic and Old Lace , for example. They’re so much of their period, with a dated humour that no longer works, that the only way to treat them is to play them as sophisticated high-camp or with deadly seriousness which allows the text to mock itself.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case with this production. Amateurs deliberately playing it for laughs rarely manage to get a play moving, and there’s too much over-the-top caricature in these portrayals to achieve anything but – well, amateurism.
It’s a clumsy and patronising text – Elmer P Dowd, friend-of-rabbits, reads aloud from a book which, one would suppose from the text, is called Jane Austen. Are we so ill-read that we don’t recognise the opening line of Pride and Prejudice ? This may be a pedantic quibble, but I don’t like being talked down to, and this play treats its audience as if they were as dim-witted as the characters.
No, give me Harvey-the-Imaginary-Rabbit over this bunch of losers any day. Perhaps the play needs re-writing, with Harvey actually on-stage but invisible to the characters in the play. Now there’s a thought. What about Harvey the Pooka , a play about this creature from Celtic mythology, a benign but mischievous fairy spirit in animal form, cheerfully turning the lives of these dull human beings upside down and proving that logic isn’t the only thing that drives the world, and that sometimes there doesn’t have to be a reason.
And now it’s time for True Confessions. I was so bored by this play that I left at interval, by which time it had already run for 75 minutes, with another act to go. As the deputy shrink in Harvey says of Elwood, this is “as outdated as the horse and cart”, so I got into my car and drove home to watch some serious silliness in the form of Sea of Souls on television. Directed by Robbie Parkin
Playing until Saturday 19 November 2005, Wednesday – Saturday at 7.30pm, Saturday matinee at 2pm
Duration: about 2 hours 30 minutes, one interval