In theatrical circles, anyone like me who is brave enough to confess to a partiality for farce is very often treated with the same raised-eyebrow disdain as if they’d demanded ketchup with their chateaubriand.
Thankfully for us, there is Michael Frayn. With a couple of deft flicks of the pen he lifts British farce out of the “Ooh, Matron” mire, and onto another, entirely more intellectually acceptable plane altogether.
That’s not to say that Donkeys’ Years is cerebral; there are smutty gags a plenty and enough hiding behind curtains and popping in and out of doors to satisfy even a farce-purist such as myself. However the dialogue is witty, the character interactions ring true, and the philosophising, while hardly profound, does at least make one think.
The scene is an Oxbridge college, where a group of middle aged men are gathering for a reunion to celebrate 25 years since they went up. An urbane, successful bunch, they appear – with one or two exceptions – the epitome of respectability. Headingley (Jamie Glover) is a governmental Under-Secretary with his eyes on the prize; Buckle (Nicholas Rowe) a suave, oily Chief Surgeon; the affable, eager Tate (Simon Coates) is a writer; swaggering Quine (Jason Durr) an assistant secretary to Headingley and the ascerbically camp Sainsbury (John Hodgkinson)is an unlikely curate. All are hell bent on reliving the jolly japes of their college days, including their lustful pursuit of Rosemary, now Lady Driver, the master’s wife, played with slightly awkward, jolly-hockey-sticks brio by Jemma Redgrave. Into this general fug of self-satisfaction wander the hapless Taylor (James Dutton), a young Fellow, and diminutive parasitologist Snell (the wonderful Ian Hughes), who should have had rooms in college all those years ago but was left off the list; a metaphor for his life, one imagines.
Act one is a whirl of sharp, snappy dialogue, as we meet the protagonists and assess their relationships with each other. “Married?” “Often.” “Children?” “Every other Sunday”. The burning question on everybody’s lips, including Rosemary’s; Where Is Roddy? Roddy, the orchestrator of top-notch pranks, the legendary romancer of women, is missing. Is he in a monastery in Sikkim? Is he doing a milk-round in Kentish town? Nobody knows. But everybody is quite sure that wherever he is, whatever he is doing, it is sure to be completely mad and wonderful, and far, far more interesting than anything they have ever done. The absent Roddy, actually forbidden to attend by his analyst, is a mythical figure created by the others to embody every type of dissatisfaction they feel with their lives.
The boys all consider themselves to be incredibly modern, open-minded and democratic. “College is a melting pot!” shouts Headingly, gazing round approvingly at the white, male, middle class faces surrounding him. It is clear, however, than they cannot tolerate the Welsh Snell at any price, the idea of “shenanigans” with a woman still renders them red and squirmy, and when they spy Birkett the porter (Keith Barron) in a t-shirt and jeans they nearly go into a meltdown.
Once the drink starts flowing, of course, it all starts to unravel. Sherry turns to claret turns to whisky, theories are expounded and dissected, confessions are made, and Lady Driver manages, through a disastrous myopic mistake, to make herself the centre of a frenetic series of misunderstandings and near-misses. You can spot the jokes coming from half a scene away, but that only makes them all the funnier. People burst in on people, other people hide behind doors, somebody gets chucked in the river, Snell has a breakdown and Lady Driver is alternately dressed in a gown, a sheet and a man’s suit. Frayn’s genius for sending ordinary events spiralling wildly out of control, so evident in Clockwise with John Cleese, is even more so here on stage, as the characters career madly though the honey-stone corridors. Everything predictably ends with the politician getting caught with his trousers down.
You could, of course, see this as a trivial tale about a bunch of posh people running around doing puerile posh people things. And in a way, you would be right. However the occasional needle of sadness punctures the smug balloon; Rosemary is clearly on the brink of a breakdown to rival Snell’s, Sainsbury just might have a hopeless crush on Quine, and Quine…is he just a little in love with Rosemary? As for Tate, he makes a couple of very tantalising, gloomy remarks which I would have liked to see elucidated. In fact all of the darker side could have done with a little more development and attention; but then, would that have made this a Play With A Moral? If so, heaven forbid.
Donkeys’ Years is fabulous, frothy, farcical fun, and that is just as it should be.
Review by Genni Trickett
The perfect summer’s day, and at one of the older universities solidly successful middle-aged men are getting into their dinner-jackets for a reunion dinner. No women, of course, because in the far-off days of their youth even the passing glimpse of a woman in college was an event to remember. But everyone’s coming! Even Roddy Moore, their elusive hero. As the moon rises and the wine goes down, middle-aged men become young again, with only too predictable results. And, in the midst of the battlefield, hidden in Roddy Moore’s old rooms waiting for a quiet word with her lost love, that very woman they all once glimpsed and never forgot…
Cast: Keith Barron as Birkett, Simon Coates as Tate, Jason Durr as Quine, James Dutton as Taylor, Jamie Glover as Headingly, John Hodgkinson as Sainsbury, Ian Hughes as Snell, Jemma Redgrave as Lady Driver, Nicholas Rowe as Buckle.
Donkeys’ Years by Michael Frayn the award-winning writer of Here and Noises Off
Directed by Lisa Spirling
Creatives: Writer Michael Frayn, Director Lisa Spirling, Designer Polly Sullivan, Casting Directors Gabrielle Dawes & Ginny Schiller, Lighting Designer Emma Chapman, Sound Designer Gregory Clarke, Costume Supervisor Peter Todd, Production Manager Wayne Parry, Company Manager Andy Beardmore, Assistant Stage Manager Robyn Clogg, Assistant Director Amy Phillips.
Thursday 6th February to Saturday 22nd February 2014
Thursday 13th February 2014