A student production for $15 a head? I wasn't expecting much, but Harvey has long been a favourite film of mine, and I'd crawl over broken glass for a ticket to the new Broadway version starring Jim Parsons. So I figured this NUTS production at the ANU Drama Lab would be worth a shot. I have to say, I was very pleasantly surprised. Subject to the usual caveats - in particular, that nearly every actor is having to play much older than their tender undergraduate years - this was pretty good.
The script, really, is far too long (the first Act alone is around 90 minutes), but there's not much that drags. For those who are unfamiliar with the story, it concerns one Elwood P Dowd, a rich, eccentric and sunny-natured bachelor who claims as his best friend a six-foot invisible rabbit named Harvey. His embarrassed family seeks to have him committed. But who is really crazy here?
Watching this I wished I were a talent scout; if I were I'd have been lurking at the stage door with business cards for some seriously promising young thesps. First call would be Jessica Symonds, who played Nurse Kelly: one of the best performances I've seen this year. She's gorgeous in a really interesting way, and her acting was incredibly natural and unaffected. Loved her. Also great as character actors were Tom Westland as Elwood P Dowd, pitched very endearingly somewhere between John Alderton and Chris Lilley; and Dylan Van Den Berg, (Dr Chumley) who played middle-aged and venal with alarming verisimilitude, and who either is actually American, or has nailed the accent better than almost anyone in town. These three were absolute stand-outs, but in a town a bit short of leading men I'd also be signing up Will Morris, a very competent and appealing Dr Sanderson.
Robin Whitby's costumes were excellent; the programme doesn't name a set designer (Willy Weijers gets the construction credit) but again, it was first-rate, with props used to add considerable detail, and wonderfully choreographed set changes. And if I were a talent scout, or with one of the local theatre companies, I would be getting Shaun Wykes's phone number pronto. His direction shows a lot of potential; timing was impeccable, blocking was exemplary, and it was evident that some less experienced performers had been very capably coached. Everyone coped very well with the faint reverberations of War of the Worlds filtering through from next door (in what I'm tempted to call War of the Dowds, but can't as my impression is that each production made genuine efforts to accommodate the other).
I was also impressed with a nuance I didn't remember finding in the movie (though admittedly it's been a while) - is Harvey a force for good or ill? Elwood is a cheerful, generous soul, but hints filter through that his life has changed since Harvey, and in ways not for the better. There are a couple of genuine frissons in the second Act, and I left with a new perspective that perhaps Elwood's big fluffy friend might be more sinister than I once thought.
I haven't seen much of NUTS's work before, but if this is typical of the current standard, I will certainly be back. And a few local companies should get themselves down here and scope out some next-gen talent.