'Donkeys' Years' review or 'Port, toffs and drunken tiffs.'
'Donkeys' Years', Michael Frayn
Rose Theatre, 12 February 2014
Written for Blouin Artinfo
Honey stone walls and a lush lawn bask in the golden glow of early evening sun and privilege. This is Cambridge University (or somewhere very similar), where a bunch of graduates have gathered for their twenty five year reunion. Needless to say, following a debauched and drunken night, everything looks a little less pristine the next morning.
Donkeys Years’ is a brisk farce but it’s one of Michael Frayn’s earliest plays and he’s only just getting warmed up. There’s nothing like the depth and exquisite detail of Frayn’s later farce, Noises Off, or the intellectual thrust of Democracy. But there are still plenty of jolly japes to be had, particularly in a deliriously bonkers second act.
Polly Sullivan’s set is a picture of Oxbridge elegance, with its elegant arches and gleaming green lawn, on which some audience members are scattered. In a slightly odd touch, a number of empty frames hang on a black canvas above the stage. Perhaps they’re meant to foreshadow the chaos that is about to be unleashed but they really just blemish an otherwise uncanny vision.
Leading this ‘distinguished’ gathering are the ‘frightfully famous’ MP, Christopher (Jamie Glover) and smug surgeon David (Nicholas Rowe). They are joined by a camp Reverend (John Hodgkinson, all liquid limbs), jolly hocky sticks chap Tate (Simon Coates) and the Master’s Wife (Jemma Redgrave). Buzzing around these (temporarily) upstanding gentlemen is an eccentric Welshman called Snell (Ian Hughes), who is desperate for one final shot at college life.
The first act takes a while to get going and director Lisa Spirling spends far too long on a tired gag involving the pretty Master’s Wife and an over-used bicycle. But the sozzled post-dinner philosophizing (‘What we need is free brandy at school!) is a master-stroke of mockery. Glover and Rowe make a brilliant double act and there is a divine moment when surgeon David offers this gem of an observation, to sage and sozzled nods all round: ‘Here we all are!’
The verbal quips are replaced with physical gags in a whirling second half, which is nothing more (or less) than an expertly timed merry-go-round of silliness. Doors slam, trousers slide down and there’s a lot of semi-naked shuffling. No way near the virtuosic delight of ‘Noises Off’, then – but a damn good giggle all the same.