Look, it would be unfair to say that Lindsay Posner hates theatre. But at the same time, it would not be unreasonable to say that the director has, of late, shown little interest in it. It is possible to blame the producers that employ him. And from there, it is possible (though flawed) to blame audiences that pay to see the turgid, unexplored and badly-rehearsed revivals of half-remembered hits that they are offered, but nevertheless Lindsay’s name sits above the title.
And Lindsay (can I call you Lindsay? Never mind, we’re now unlikely to be on good terms) I’m afraid I missed your Oleanna. I was a little young for After Darwin. So I associate you with 2013’s Woman in Black-wannabe The Turn of the Screw at the Almeida. I associate you with last year’s Hay Fever (going into the Duke of York’s at the end of April). But where Felicity Kendal is given plenty to do as Noël Coward’s wonderful creation Judith Bliss, neither Maureen Lipman nor anyone else on stage is given much of anything to do that might win us over in Harvey.
And all this is something of a crime because Harvey presents a damn fine opportunity for a director, because the play is so suggestive about its title character – the six-foot tall white rabbit that only Elwood P Dowd (James Dreyfus) sees. But a coy play needs wrangling with, and while Hay Fever can hold its own through a shirking and shrinking production, Harvey can’t. Without a satirical angle, a wry suggestion from the production about the nature of Harvey, and an intelligent take on the mental health issues that come along with the comedy, this play is dead on its feet.
Mary Chase’s play won a Pulitzer Prize. Yes, it was 1945 and people had other things on their minds, but Harvey is not as vacuous a text as the production it has received. The idea of Harvey gives a sense of possibility, both to those who see him and those who don’t. He causes characters to become blind to class distinctions and social conventions, but he also blinds Elwood to his relatives’ suffering while he passes the time getting blind drunk with his invisible friend. The world Harvey interrupts is full of dissolute and trapped characters, and the puckish spirit changes and charges that world. So much is up for grabs and so much that could be mined for comedy.
And while I could have laid the lack of imagination for the oak-panelled picture box set of Hay Fever at the feet of designer Peter McKintosh – in fact the two of you are long-term collaborators – you have arrived at an even blander result again with Harvey. Clearly, this is what you wanted, or what you thought you were expected to deliver. The three settings in the play – a old pile, a sanatorium and a dive bar – mark three distinct social worlds, but the design and character work collude to erase all difference. And this is true of the whole: all is surface, the laughs are few and fleeting, and Harvey, the play’s metaphorical engine, becomes what the scene, or even the beat demands, rather than offering something to give the play argumentative, narrative, or emotional heft.
Lindsay, have you ever seen Crazy Stupid Love? I’m going to indulgently cast myself as Ryan Gosling here and address this advice to you: “Be Better Than The Gap.” I’m not asking you not to take the gigs. I’m glad you’re getting them. But please, think better of the material than your hirers do. Find hidden magic in it and shoot for something incredible. The real fear is that the mid-to-large scale circuit goes the way of the film world, where the producers start to look for directors with a safe pair of hands, to ‘shepherd’ rather than inspire a project. Be better than safe. Be better than the Gap.