Run, rabbit, run and run

THEATRE; Harvey Shaftesbury, London
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The Independent Culture
There was an empty seat on my immediate left at the first night of Harvey. Normally, this would be a boon for a theatre critic (no neighbour to disturb with your note-taking, more elbow room, etc). But when you're watching a play about an idiot savant whose best friend and constant sidekick is an invisible 6ft rabbit, sitting next to an empty space makes you feel a trifle self-conscious. Indeed, I toyed with the idea of chummily nudging this suggestive vacant area whenever there was a good joke, and of stage- whispering urgent explanations after some of the more complicated plot twists.

Then, in the interval, I would go to an exaggerated "You first; no, you first; no, I insist" dumbshow, before popping off to buy two ice-creams. But I figure that I might end up being escorted out by the management.

Which would have been a pity, because while no one could claim that Mary Chase's 50-year-old play isn't looking a bit rickety these days - or that its Forrest Gump-like equation of wisdom with being mentally retarded throws a flattering light on American culture - Clifford Williams's new production proves that this comedy can still exert a disarming charm.

Thanks for this are mostly due to Gordon Kaye, who, with his moon-faced, uncloying innocence and tubby grace, makes the sweet nature, blithe vagueness and patient courtesy of Elwood P Dowd genuinely appealing. His relaxed, total belief in his bunny buddy is distinctly infectious. The play's perception of this character is, of course, riddled with sentimentality and in case we haven't got the trite message, Chase even contrives, in the scene in the sanatorium where Elwood is about to be given a corrective injection, to bring on a cabbie who, from having them as passengers, knows all about the "cured": "afterwards, he'll be a perfectly normal human being, and you know what bastards they are". It says a lot for the calm, dotty dignity of Kaye's performance that the urge to throw up at such moments is never strong.

In a way that somewhat fumblingly foreshadows the Orton of What the Butler Saw, Harvey suggests that it's the psychiatrists who need a good psychiatrist. The lively early scenes show them leaping to lunatic conclusions, misattributing insanity to Elwood's sister (hilarious Rue McClanahan), a society dame who returns home from enforced treatment in a wonderful state of sartorial disarray, her askew Betty Boop curls all aquiver with the conviction that she has been manhandled by sex-mad white slave traders. As she speaks of her ordeal, Ken Wynne's sublimely funny judge has a quick game of pocket billiards.

The cast is, in general, a delight. It's not the actors' fault that the play's farcical momentum peters out in the second half, or that the granting of a certain objectivity to Harvey undermines the dramatic ambivalence. Paul Daniels was among the stars in the first night audience, but the production did not need his help in pulling a rather likeable rabbit out of this frankly elderly hat.