Theatre Royal, Haymarket
23 March 2015
Not enough fuss is made about the gifted people who provide set and costume designs for shows that play on the West End. Awards tend to focus on acting and direction, and although there often are awards handed out for set, costume, lighting and sound design, they are never considered the important awards. And yet, design is just as critical to the overall enjoyment of a theatrical production as any other aspect. Indeed, in the worst productions, a good set will give you something to ponder, to get lost in looking at; similarly, a bad set can distract from performances, which can be good or bad (depending upon the performances).
Peter McIntosh has provided a simply beautiful, incredibly detailed set for Lindsay Posner’s revival of Harvey, the 1945 Pulitzer Prize winning play by Mary Coyle Chase, which has just opened at the Haymarket Theatre following a season at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and a UK tour. The set deserves applause all of its own.
When the play opens, we are in the library/sitting room of the Dowd/Simmons household. Beautiful, rich wood panelling is everywhere. Tasteful furnishings, a gorgeous pink chaise lounge, a fireplace over which hangs a dominant photo of an impressive woman, endless books, a small telephone table and a beautifully upholstered chair or two, one for taking calls. Everything smells of money, but with a touch of quirkiness which is hard to define. There is a hallway through which we can see a door into another room, where a soirée of some sort is happening. Gilbert and Sullivan is being performed by a woman one imagines is some sort of society draw. The atmosphere is delicious, enticing.
When the action moves to the local sanatorium, the drawing room set simply swivels away. Huge moveable trucks silently whir into action. A new set arrives, this one clinical and hospital green, a real sense of official cheerlessness and superiority swirling all around it. But the impressive thing is that while the drawing room was a rectangle, this is a triangle of sorts: the playing space is completely different, fresh and interesting. There are several doors which promise slamming and a staircase that leads somewhere. Again, the atmosphere is expectant, tantalising, but in a wholly different way from the first set.
The action returns to the drawing room and then, after interval, there is a new space : a cosy bar. It could be a speakeasy anywhere, lots of wood on the walls, an amply stocked bar, complete with mirrored surfaces and a dour bartender, lots of tables and chairs. The effect is warming and intriguing: not the least because there has been much talk of this bar in previous scenes. When the moment in the bar ends, the silent swivel occurs again, and somewhat miraculously, the sanatorium set slides into place for the final scene.
I mention the set in such detail for two reasons. Firstly, because McIntosh’s achievement with the set is world class, and the magical sense of the way the set changes works beautifully to mirror the magic of a world where the future can be predicted by a six foot three and one half inches white rabbit called Harvey. This is a clear case of the set designer finding a clever, unobtrusive way to make the set reflect central themes in the play. Secondly, because the set is far and away the best thing about this production.
As directed by Lindsay Posner, this is the dullest evocation of the charming story of Elwood Dowd and his white rabbit friend, Harvey, you can possibly imagine. Chase’s play is light, witty and full of charm; it has farcical elements but they do not dominate. To be successful, the director simply has to ensure the charm is to the fore, the pace is bright and breezy and the performances true and honest. There are no secret meanings, no complex sub-texts, no in-depth treatments of sensitive topics.
No. There is just gentle fun, innocent and intoxicating, and the notion that happiness is right in front of us all, if we care to grasp it. A man, blissfully happy in the company of his “imaginary” tall white rabbit friend, the titular Harvey, shows us how to grasp it.
But Posner seems unwilling, or unable, to let the text weave its beguiling spell. Rather than honest, charming performances, he opts for tricky, tricksy characterisations and performances, bluster rather than banter, shrillness rather than softness, camp rather than cosy, the cynicism of now rather than the rosy tint of then, form rather than substance. The beating heart of Chase’s play is never heard; Posner substitutes hard edged modernity where soft-focus nostalgia is essential.
This is all made crystal clear when Lionel Haft makes his late Act Two entrance playing a determined but respectful cab driver who needs his fare paying. Haft is luminous in his short scene, a twinkle of joy in his eye, an easy, laconic verve about him. This is a man who enjoys his life and gets his way. There is no artifice here, just a truthful performance. Haft’s character stands in stark contrast to the others with whom he shares the stage.
Chase uses Haft’s character to bring home the point to Elwood’s sister, Veta, that she can’t really do without Elwood in her life. Looked at another way, Haft’s character brings about the moment when Veta accepts Harvey. Seeing is not believing; Veta has seen Harvey but never believed. The business with the missing coin purse, necessary to pay Haft his fare, causes Veta to accept and believe. Elwood, of course, has been doing this all along but now Veta catches on.
It’s the central tenet of the play: contentment comes through acceptance and belief. The two sets of lovers in waiting (Nurse Kelly and Dr Sanderson; Myrtle Mae and Duane) need to learn this lesson for their futures to entwine; Dr Chumley and Dr Sanderson both need to accept that they can be wrong; the Judge needs to accept that he does not always know best; Myrtle Mae needs to accept that her needs are not the most important; Veta needs to accept that Harvey is not the enemy – an unforgiving, unaccepting nature is the enemy.
Elwood accepts everybody and believes in everybody: that is the lesson he has to teach the others. Haft’s character likewise. He accepts anyone as a passenger and believes he will be treated fairly. He embodies Harvey’s philosophy; he just doesn’t need an invisible giant rabbit or Pooka to get by.
The whimsy of the piece comes not just from the setting and dialogue and story, but also by the playing. Haft aside, the playing here is surprisingly inept.
None of Jack Hawkins (Dr Sanderson), Ingrid Oliver (Myrtle Mae), Youseff Kerkour (Duane), Sally Scott (Nurse Kelly) or David Bamber (Dr Chumley) bring any warmth or charm to their time onstage. There is no sense of love blossoming, the happiness the possibilities change can bring, or even a simple sense of joy. All are rough and gruff and cold when they all should be delightful. Modern shrillness is no substitute for old-fashioned happiness.
Amanda Boxer and Desmond Barrit fare somewhat better, but for all the eccentricities of their stock characters (socialite and Judge respectively) they, too, need more charm – and lots of it.
James Dreyfus, a fine actor, seems here lost in a sea of smug artifice, when all he needs do is let his intrinsic stylish charm burst everywhere. His Elwood is too mannered, too camp, too faux joie de vivre – he seems like he might be Madame Lucy from Irene rather than the man with the beautiful soul and the tall white rabbit. He is strangely wordly and quizzical when he should be innocent and sincere. It’s a very odd performance.
Maureen Lipman is marvellously uptight as Veta, Elwood’s sister and she brings a glorious distress to the scene where she returns home having been nurse-handled at the sanatorium, one stocking akimbo and her hair suffering as though every curl had been upended by a tornado. Her double-takes over Harvey, Harvey’s painting and her slow delicious collapse onto the chaise lounge are all meticulously, beautifully timed. She knows how to deliver a line for full effect.
Indeed, had there been more charm on the stage around her, it is likely that her performance would have been much more delightful; but the absence of excellent support leaves her isolated, almost in her own performance sphere. Not even Lipman can shoulder the burden of the play on her own. Not even in McIntosh’s splendid set and wearing the fabulous frocks he designed for her.
Without the central charm and warmth Chase envisioned and clearly wrote, the play can’t succeed. Posner has wholly failed to illuminate the sense of solace and comfort Chase intended – she wrote the play to lift and ease the spirits of those who suffered as a result of World War II. This production takes more than it gives and leaves Dreyfus and Lipman marooned in a turkey.
An unfunny, charmless turkey.