Review – Harvey

May 19 2012 | By More


Leitheatre Harvey, Church Hill Theatre, Leigh Ward, Pat Hymers

Leigh Ward as Elwood P Down and Pat Hymers as Marvin in Leitheatre’s production of Harvey. Photo credit: Marion Donohoe

Church Hill Theatre

Review by Thom Dibdin

There is a real humanity to Leitheatre’s production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvey, which is up at the Church Hill Theatre all this week.

The laughs are there, in most cases, in this comedy about one Elwood P. Dowd, whose belief that he is constantly accompanied by a large white rabbit has made his sister believe that he is not merely an affable drunk, but a sectionable lunatic.

It is not the humour which makes this stand out, however, but the subtle turning of that comedy on its head.

The key is a big, intelligent performance from Leigh Ward as Elwood. When he wanders onto the stage you know exactly who this man is, as he brings out all the quaint charm of one who has decided that being pleasant is much preferable to being smart.

Without reverting to the full-blown whimsy that James Stewart injected into the character in the 1950 film, Ward develops him is a man you would happily share a drink with – or be pleasantly flattered if he gave up his seat on a bus for you.

Around him, director Colin Stirling-Whyte has had rather less success in helping his actors define their characters through their performances rather than just showing what is innate to  Mary Chase’s script.

Moira Macdonald as Elwood’s sister Veta and Jennie Davidson as her daughter Myrtle May, have something of the necessary pushiness about them. They fluster and bustle about the library of the Dowd’s large family house nicely enough. Indeed, in the opening scene you’d believe there was a socialite party going on in the room next door.

What they don’t quite have are the social niceties of women of that time and place. Nor, indeed, do they have the human characteristics which really define their characters. You might believe that they don’t have the gumption to live around Elwood’s invisible companion but there is no feeling that their underlying bitterness at being  thwarted in their social ambitions has a contradictory hint of jealousy at his easy life.

All the necessary regard to timing and blocking

Still, there is enough there – and in Kate Potter’s performance as Mrs Chauvenet the visitor to the party who unwittingly becomes introduced to Harvey – for the basic comedy of the situation to develop smoothly. Chauvenet’s absolute change of manner and the mother and daughter’s humiliation when Harvey makes an appearance are nicely done.

The comedy steps up a gear when Vera takes her brother to have him committed at the local asylum: Chumley’s Rest. The ensuing comedy of errors – as Dr Sanderson (Steven Adams) and Nurse Kelly (Constance Clark) consistently fail to be introduced to Harvey and end up sectioning Vera – is played out with all the necessary regard to timing and blocking.

Once again, however, there is little humanity to the two characters. All of Dr Sanderson’s sleaze and sexism comes from the script not the performance, while there is little to indicate exactly how dumb a blonde Nurse Kelly might – or might not –  be.

If Adams and Clark  want for bigger characters, there is no such problem for Pat Hymers as the hospital orderly, Marvin. He plays him with such a large and swinging gait that you have no idea whether he actually is an employee or an inmate of the asylum.

And it this conflict between what is sane and what is not sane on which the truth and depth of the whole play rests. There is an inkling of it when Vera admits to having seen Harvey as she tries to convince Sanderson that Elwood is insane. At the time it appears to be a mere havering, a logical feeling for someone who is at their wits end.

But the notion that Harvey might be more than a figment of imagination grows inexorably. He might have a basis on something other than accepted reality, but the idea of a Pooka – a faerie figure of Celtic extraction which comes to accompany humans – gathers credibility as the play goes on.

Don Arnott as Dr Chumley the senior doctor and owner of the institution, succeeds in bringing out just that as he goes off to spend a drunken evening with Elwood and returns with Harvey in tow. And while John McColl has few accent issues as Judge Gaffney, he too succeeds in conveying the idea that Elwood’s sanity is not really an issue, but his ability to exist in the community. Or rather, the community’s ability to let him exist in it.

So while there are elements of the prosaic about the production which really deserve a two star billing, the overall effect is of a satisfying evening out – of definite three star credentials.

Run ends Saturday 19 May
Running time: 2 hours 30 mins
Performances: 7.30pm (not Sat); 2.30pm (Sat only)
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