In the quarter of a century since the Royal Exchange first presented Mary Chase's Harvey, we've become conditioned to far zanier notions than the unconditional friendship of an invisible white rabbit, measuring between 6ft 1in and 6ft 6in. True, this one stops clocks with a look, makes purses magically disappear, knows about "everything" and spends his spare time hanging out in down-town bars with his affable pal Elwood P Dowd. Dowd's insistence on his pointy-eared chum being given full recognition drives his sister kind of mad and the two of them end up sending the medical profession nuts too.
By the end of Greg Hersov's production at the Royal Exchange you feel as though Harvey's a fully fledged member of the cast, thanks to a brilliant central performance by Ben Keaton as Dowd, the role made famous in 1950 by James Stewart in a film that became a cult classic. In Keaton's hands, Dowd's a cheery, clubbable sort of chap. Keaton has such an affectionate way with his tall furry friend, a pukka pooka with gentlemanly manners, that you find your eyes following this invisible spiritual presence around the stage.
Hersov may not pull any rabbits out of hats but, on Di Seymour's handsome and neatly changed set, he pulls solid performances out of even the smaller parts, especially from Joe Speare who makes a quiet impact in his pivotal role as the taxi-driver. Polly Hemingway gives an energetic performance as Dowd's distracted, muddle-headed sister, while Alisa Arnah is a cute Nurse Kelly, enjoying an ambivalent relationship with fractious Dr Sanderson (Milo Twomey).
When the play's verbal energy has gathered pace the production will raise more sparks. Even without the sprinkling of fairy dust it's impossible not to feel warmed by the delightful dance sequence in which Keaton and Arnah add a dreamlike dimension. And the Royal Exchange must have been carrying a rabbit's foot in its left pocket when it found Goodman Harvey to sponsor this show.
Neither cute nor fluffy, this rabbit's a long way from the carrot-crunching star of Beatrix Potter, the gun-toting creature in Sexy Beast or his nasty cousin in Donnie Darko. Yet while Chase's tale, set in the far west of America in the 1940s, is ostensibly about goodness, there are dark elements here that make it more complex and unsettling than its subject suggests.
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