By Gillie Tunley and Brenda Sandilands.
The Shinfield Players are staging the charming Harvey, written by Mary Coyle Chase and deftly directed by Maggie Smith. Members of the audience may remember the original version, a huge Broadway success, and the 1950 film version starring James Stewart as the amiable Elwood P Dowd.
In this production, Dowd is played with touching simplicity by the disarming Gordon Bird. To a nostalgic soundscape (a lilting sound design by Patrick and Cate Naylor) we are led into the charmingly chintzy sitting room of his home (tasteful set design by Tim Howling) where his sister, the social-clambering Veta Louise Simmons, complete with glittering corsage (an effusively hilarious portrayal by Sandra Miall) is instructing her dizzy daughter Myrtle Mae on seemly behaviour for the grand Coming Out party in their home that evening. Mrs Simmons reminds us of the fluttering marriage-mad Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, this impression is re-inforced as Dowd reads the first page of the novel to himself later in the play.
While Mrs Simmons frets about her daughter’s marriage prospects, Myrtle Mae (a deliciously simpering performance by Millie Naylor) grumbles that it doesn’t help to have an uncle (Dowd) who is “the biggest screwball in town”. It soon transpires that the problem is her uncle’s best friend – an invisible giant white rabbit called Harvey, who is so omnipresent that several others begin to believe they’ve seen him too…
The mercenary mother soon devises a plan to remove his embarrassing presence from their lives, thus improving her daughter’s matrimonial prospects. With the help of the compliant Judge Gaffney (a blustering portrayal by Brian Nixey), she arranges to have Dowd committed to an asylum. A madcap comedy of errors ensues, with hilarious mistaken identities and mass confusion…
Within the ice blue confines of the asylum, Tom Naylor delivers a powerhouse performance as the superbly smug Doctor Sanderson, who tries to make sense of Veta’s rambling discourse, his hair becoming increasingly manic as his lunacy heightens. He is sympathetically assisted by the love-lorn Ruth Kelly, R.N (a crisply efficient portrayal by the beauteous Elizabeth Moorcroft) and the officious Duane Wilson (played with engaging irony by Jordan Emmett).
Meanwhile, his superior, Doctor Chumley (a strongly authoritative performance by Derek Lockwood), becomes caught up in the chaos and begins to lose control of all around him, much to the chagrin of his glossily glamorous wife Betty (the delightful Melanie Sherwood). We, the audience, begin to wonder if the kind-hearted and generous Dowd is actually saner than all the pompous medical ‘experts’.
But in the end, compassion wins the day – we are left with a sense of hope and humanity as the curtain falls.
This is delightfully uplifting theatre – don’t miss it!
James Stewart, in 1990, remembering his role in the 1950 film Harvey (Youtube).