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Donkey’s Years at The Rose Theatre, Kingston – theatre review

PUBLISHED: 17:51 20 February 2014 | UPDATED: 17:51 20 February 2014

©ALASTAIR MUIR CONTACT alastair@alastairmuir.com

College reunions are a rich source of comedy, as friends meet after years apart to swop stories and pretend to be delighted at each other’s success. So, Michael Frayn chose to set his 1976 farce, Donkey’s Years at such an event. It didn’t disappoint.

By taking a group of increasingly drunk, self-important middle aged men, then adding a glamorous old flame who’s hoping that history will repeat itself, the stage was set for some amusing misunderstandings. Now, 38 years later, director Lisa Spirling has resurrected the play, in the hope that it will still speak to 2014 audiences.

The play is ‘amusing’ now, rather than hilarious, as it has a slightly dated feel, not wearing its age quite so well as Frayn’s later work, Noises Off. Here, the involvement of shed clothing, slammed doors and rooms being swapped in the dead of night seemed at times a little contrived. There was even the ubiquitous farcical vicar (John Hodgkinson’s delightfully camp cleric).

Yet the characters were handled superbly by the cast, with quick, humorous delivery. There was a generous helping of pathos too, coming mainly from Jemma Redgrave’s Lady Driver, the ‘College Mistress’ who revealed her vulnerable side more than once. Also Ian Hughes’ ethical pharmacist, Snell, who was not allowed to have rooms in college back in the day and was therefore determined to make up for it now, despite always being one step behind everyone else. Another welcome sight was Keith Barron, playing the college’s old retainer, who had clearly seen it all before, many times.

The rest of the gathering was made up from your archetypal successful middle aged males. As the wine flows, so does the faux philosophy, with every asinine word uttered by one of the group treated with drunken approbation by the others. Jamie Glover’s ambitious politician, Nicholas Rowe’s sleek surgeon, Simon Coates’ tabloid writer and Jason Durr’s cynical civil servant take it in turns to spout their self-righteous nonsense, broken only by the naive interjections of Snell in an excellent after dinner conversation scene that would have struck a chord with many in the audience.

As the evening descends further into debauchery, so the group return to the youthful high jinks of their college years. They go in search of contraband alcohol, steal the college keys and even run across the grass in the main courtyard, much to the alarm of James Dutton’s young college professor, Dr. Bill Turner.

As Snell poignantly remarks, when the group was at college first time around, nobody was “old enough to know how to be young.” Wise words indeed - haven’t we all been there? Didn’t someone once say that youth was wasted on the young?

• Donkey’s Years runs at the Rose Theatre, Kingston until Saturday February 22. Tickets are available at www.rosetheatrekingston.org

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