Sweetly strange and slightly surreal, Mary Chase’s classic Broadway comedy is given a production of polish and pleasure that honours it as very much of its time, but now making it feel seemingly timeless. First premiered in 1944 – and winning the Pulitzer prize, astonishingly, over The Glass Menagerie – it has had few English revivals.
But it emerges as a surprising, peculiar but oddly affecting entertainment that has echoes of What the Butler Saw (with its cases of mistaken identity in a psychiatric clinic) and Equus (what would the price be of a man being cured of his animal obsession?) to make it cut far deeper than its mild surface pleasures would indicate.
Produced with a loving sense of period fidelity in Peter McKintosh’s sumptuous designs that have three full interiors on a revolve, director Lindsay Posner also pays the work the ultimate compliment of playing it completely straight. His production fields a quartet of some of our funniest stage actors, but no one hams it up. The production’s comedy motor duly feels effortlessly engaged.
Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the matchless performance of James Dreyfus as Elwood P Dowd, who has to act for two: himself and his imaginary constant companion, a 6ft 3.5in-tall white rabbit. Dreyfus – who used to specialise in camp waspishness – has mellowed into something much more interesting; a figure of kindness and sincerity.
As his perplexed, frustrated sister Maureen Lipman takes her remarkable physicality as a comedy actor to new heights – even her hair seems to be putting on a performance here at one point, as well as her amazing comedy legs. David Bamber and Desmond Barrit are both blissful luxury casting in the two authority roles of the lead psychiatrist and a lawyer judge.
February 6-21, then touring until May 2, PN February 17
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