Donkey's Years

Michael Frayn
Comedy Theatre
(2006)

Michael Frayn is one of the few playwrights to write equally well in two completely contrasting genres. In the last few years, he has concentrated on plays of ideas such as Copenhagen and Democracy. Further back, he was the master of the farce with Noises Off recognised as a best of class.

Jeremy Sams' revival of Donkey's Years, first produced thirty years ago, comes from that stable and at times will leave audience members with tears of laughter in their eyes. Frayn's skill is in delivering predictable situations, and punchlines that one could deliver ahead of the actors, and still make it all seem incredibly funny.

The play is set in a stuffy Oxbridge college to which a group of male alumni are returning for a 25th anniversary reunion, one of those excuses to beg funds for the latest development. Without absolutely deciding to do so, all know that this will be a rare chance to escape the family and enjoy a few pranks that will remind them of the carefree days of their youth.

The faithful old scout played by Edward Petherbridge, one of a number of excellent pieces of casting, welcomes his former charges as if they were returning from a long vacation rather than a sustained period of high-powered career development.

The usual suspects (for both a farce and a college reunion) turn up. There is a Government Minister, a cheerless Civil Servant, a gossip columnist, an eminent surgeon, a gay clergyman and, to add a touch of femininity, the Master's wife, Lady Driver or, more familiarly, Rosemary. Only the French maid has got lost.

In true farce style, the first two acts set the scene and introduce the characters while the last sees them rushing around with doors slammed and clothes lost and exchanged.

The star of the evening is a well-known face from The Thin Blue Line and Four Weddings and a Funeral, David Haig, who plays Chris Headingley, a junior education minister. Like almost every contemporary, he has enjoyed the company of Samantha (Moneypenny) Bond's Rosemary. The nymphomaniac constantly wheels a symbolic bike that is eventually ridden by most of the men, as she awaits her favourite old flame. Sadly for her, he, like Godot, is much anticipated but is never destined to appear.

The energetic Rosemary, a part originally played by Penelope Keith, is the only woman. As such, Miss Bond has to work overtime as she is chased by everybody from a current don through a stream of randy middle-aged men to the boring outsider with a name that no one can ever remember.

Despite her career as a magistrate, Rosemary's instincts are unfailingly wrong but eventually she manages the kind of escape that never happens outside this formulaic genre.

By the end, though, her ill-timed appearances have given Haig the opportunity for an impassioned, Blairite speech, an embarrassing Prescott/Blunkett problem and even a Mrs Thatcher moment complete with matching red handbag and high heels. It hardly needs saying that he spends the whole of the final act bunny-hopping hilariously with his trousers around his ankles.

Jeremy Sams who did so well with his Noises Off at the National a few years back does not quite manage that consistently high quality but should have another hit on his hands.

This is a credit both to his comic sensibility and timing and a cast that brings together a fair sample of the cream of our best comic character actors. In addition to those already named, Michael Simkins as the doctor and Mark Addy as the bearded bore both shine.

Visit our sponsor 1st 4 London Theatre to book tickets for Donkey's Years.

Philip Fisher