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A CurtainUp London Review
Jeremy Sams has lovingly revived Frayn's comedy about college reunions and with the delightful David Haig on board, Donkeys' Years pleases at several levels. Frayn's repartee bounces off the walls and raises farce to something altogether more subtle and witty.
The picture we see of England in Donkeys' Years is largely extinct. This is because although it is set in the late seventies, the characters are harking back to their Oxbridge college days a quarter of a century before in the 1950s. At that point, Oxford and Cambridge were dominated by undergraduates who were mainly white, male and middle class. Girls were the exception as were working class men. Making one of those attending the reunion the now Minister for Education gives Frayn the opportunity to poke fun at politicians -- the member of the government got a Third class degree -- whilst lampooning the mealy mouthed way politicians make speeches. Frayn's minute observation allows him to point out the socially ridiculous with the rapier skill of a master swordsman in a fencing bout scoring a hit.
The story line depends mostly on the play's only woman, the much lusted after Rosemary (Samantha Bond), who is now married to the Master of the College, but who went through undergraduates like hot dinners. Rosemary, caught in an almost compromising position, manages to inflame the loins of brash northerner Kenneth Snell (Mark Addy), the one who never lived inside college walls, who was never part of the in crowd and for whom women like Rosemary were and are mere fantasy. The reunion sees much imbibing and consequent drunkeness.
Christopher Headingley (David Haig) injures his back and spends most of the second half unable to put his trousers on so that they are round his ankles. He is at the same time trying to save Rosemary's reputation and rescue her from the inappropriate sexual advances of the ghastly Kenneth. Otherwise the plot is a tad thin. The morning after sees technicolour hangovers and much regret for the shenanigans of the night before especially as a Fleet Street hack was witness to it all. Well I did warn you that it is a farce! Although the first act seemed to me to be partially a social commentary on class and education, the second act is wildfire farce, frenetic invention of excuses and decoys in the trousers down tradition. Frayn's skill is in creating the distinct and individually recognisable characters of the first act.
David Haig twinkles away with his unique combination of smiling amusement and quirky charm as Chris Headingley, Captain of Boats and ultimately good sort. I loved James Dreyfus as civil servant Alan Quine, he is taciturn, sardonic and very witty and parries with the gorgeously garrulous and camp Reverend Sainsbury (Michael Fitzgerald). Samantha Bond is slightly improbably short sighted but she is convincingly a victim of the conflict between her sexual appetite and desire for social decorum. Edward Petherbridge provides solid support as the college servant who remembers them as students.
Jeremy Sams gets impeccably timed performances from the ensemble cast and Peter McKintosh's sets, detailed and exact reproduction of the stone college quad and college rooms, add a wow factor to the authentic feel. Whilst Donkey's Years may be Frayn Lite it is a rib tickling evening in the theatre.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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