First brought to the stage in 1944 by American playwright Mary Chase, Harvey, the story of a young man named Elwood and his unusual best friend, is currently running in Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre courtesy of the No Drama Theatre group.
On the surface of things, Elwood is a perfectly normal fellow. He is polite, charming and has a natural affability which makes him easy to talk to, meaning he is never short for someone to share stories with. However, when we scratch the surface just a little bit, we quickly realise that something is a little bit off about Elwood. Or rather, there is something most unusual about the company he keeps. His best friend is a six foot (one and a half) tall bipedal rabbit named Harvey whom only he can see and hear.
When people think of giant imaginary rabbits they tend to recall the film Donnie Darko. However, the similarities between said film and Harvey are mostly superficial. Harvey is a much more simplistic storyline, on the surface at least, with a much more farcical and slapstick current running through it.
While having an oversized and peculiarly stanced leporid following you around all day would give most ‘right-thinking’ members of society reason for concern, Elwood is unperturbed. It would seem that his happy-go-lucky nature, combined with his consummate ability to see the good in all things, makes him view a friendly relationship with a big white rabbit as something to be proud about, and certainly not something to be freaked out or worried by. The same cannot be said for his family however. His sister Veta in particular is most concerned by his far from usual behaviour, and seeks to have him committed to a mental asylum.
Anyone expecting Harvey to feature a man bopping around stage in a big rabbit suit will be disappointed (or perhaps relieved?). The titular bunny is never shown directly as we, the audience, are left under no illusion that Harvey is not a physical being. While there are a couple of subtle nods here and there that suggest that there may in fact be more to him than a mere figment of just Elwood’s imagination, Harvey only ever occupies empty space on stage.
This brings out the best in lead actor Greg Freegrove, who plays Elwood. He spends much of the play interacting with what is essentially nothing. As ‘Harvey’ gives no cues, visual or otherwise, Freegrove is superb when it comes to know how, when and where to deliver his lines and body language. There are times when you would be forgiven for believing that there was in fact an invisible person whom only Freegrove can see acting out the role of Harvey, such is his ability to somehow convey a sense of weight unto the space where the rabbit character is supposed to be, like some sort of physical ventriloquist. It is a spellbinding performance that is one part acting and perhaps two parts reacting (to nothing).
Harvey is by no means a one man show though. The play is littered with fun characters, particularly when the action moves to the mental hospital. From a disillusioned and rambunctious ward nurse (Sarah Moloney) to a very disorderly orderly who seems to enjoy manhandling the patients a bit too much (Paul McGrath), one cannot help but wonder if the lunatics have in fact taken over the asylum! Of course, there is room for subtlety in Harvey’s humour as well. Director Vincent Ryan has seen to it that there’s many a clever visual gag and awkward look shared among players to reward the attentive audience member (he would know a thing or two about what makes things funny – he is a member of the hysterical Kill The Monster comedy improv group after all).
It must be said, for the record, that the version of Harvey which I saw was not the finished article, but an early dress rehearsal. With that in mind, there were a couple of missed cues and timing issues which proved problematic during the performance in question. However, having seen several No Drama Theatre productions at this stage, some of which employed many of the same cast and crew as Harvey, I would have little doubt that these small flaws will be summarily eradicated within the space of a couple more practice runs. By the time the show is open to the public (the opening night is taking place as I write this), Harvey should be every bit as polished as every other No Drama show I have seen thus far.
Light and fluffy for the most part, but with a very human centre, Harvey is a play which makes for many hearty laughs while also allowing us to take a moment to reflect upon the nature of conformity and all of its dubious merits.
Harvey runs in Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre until Saturday, December 5th (inclusive).
Tickets are priced between €12 and €15 and are available here.
[Image: No Drama Theatre]