Donkeys' Years

Wednesday, 10 May, 2006
Review by: 
Tom Keatinge

Opened 9 May 2006
Written: by Michael Frayn
Directed: Jeremy Sams
Cast: Mark Addy (Kenneth Snell), Samantha Bond (Lady Driver), James Dreyfus (Alan Quine), David Haig (Christopher Headingley), Jonathan Coy (Norman Tate), Edward Petherbridge (Sydney Birkett), Michael Simkins (David Buckle)
Synopsis: Twenty five years after graduation, six former students return to their university college for a reunion dinner. Whilst their lives may have had varying degrees of success, all are connected by a common past. Once locked in college for the night, the graduates begin to relive their youth, and old friendships, feuds - and the much-desired but absurdly proper Master's wife - come tumbling back chaotically into the present......

What the critics had to say.....
MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Inspired production...David Haig's performance as the hapless minister is a classic of its kind...Samantha Bond as the Master's wife is brilliant..." NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, " I found myself overwhelmed with amusement." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "It's an entertaining evening that made me laugh out loud several times, but it's not first-division Frayn." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "One is left physically weak with grateful laughter... What a deliriously enjoyable evening this is: English comedy at its classic best." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "With Copenhagen and then Democracy, Frayn’s work has deepened and maybe darkened. But Jeremy Sams’s production should keep us mindful of something else. Michael Frayn was, is, a very funny man. "

External links to full reviews from popular press
The Guardian
The Independent
Daily Telegraph
The Times

It’s hard to know where to start. Do I skirt the issue, bite my tongue, serve up platitudes and compliment the interval ice creams, or just come straight out with it? “Donkeys’ Years”, at the Comedy Theatre, set in “one of the smaller courts, in one of the lesser colleges, at one of the older universities” is possibly the most puerile display of mediocre middle class rubbish I have had the misfortune to witness since my parents allowed me to stay up to watch the Benny Hill / Kenny Everett double-bill. The only thing missing from this production was a regular cry of “Ooo Matron!”

Michael Frayn’s ass’s tale sees a collection of typical Oxbridge graduates returning to college to celebrate 25 years since “going up”. The first act, in the college quad, sets the scene – the past is rehashed for our benefit, and those in the audience (most of them) that went to the UK “Ivy League” are made to feel at home with reminiscences of Hall, formal dinners, and high jinks and japes involving “the opposite sex” (ooo-err) and being chucked in the river.

It is traditional at this point to mention actors, their characters, and the interpretation of said character by said actor. However I suspect those whose agents successfully secured them their role would rather I omitted their names at this point. Suffice to say, we are treated to a government minister who ends up with his trousers round his ankles and red stilettos and hand bag in his room, a camp clergyman, a “regional” accent (I think it was meant to be Welsh) that everyone ostracised 25 years ago, and whose stereotypical behaviour makes sure that the snobs (both on the stage and in the audience) can justifiably continue to treat him with disdain, and the college Master’s wife who was formerly a student of the university and the college bike, climbing over walls and through windows late at night, and quite fancies another lap of the track as her husband is away for the weekend.

With the scene set, dinner follows, and we are then treated to the late night, after dinner frolics, with more childish antics, public school humour and giggling at innuendo and silly walks, as the Master’s wife hides behind the door, behind the curtains and plays a funny scene of mistaken identity because she’s taken her glasses off. And just when you think you can take no more, the final act brings us to the morning after, with its rerun of all the bits of last night we were spared. The government minister fearing for the future of the country and economy if the papers get a whiff of what he’d all like us to think has been going on, and the pathetic but inevitable “getting the shaving foam, toothpaste and deodorant muddled up” gag. Oh how we laughed as we desperately willed the curtain down and bolted for the exit.

And before you condemn your reviewer as a Guardian-reading, public school-resenting, red-brick polytechnic-educated pinko, let me tell you that you could not be further from the truth – the formal dinners, gowns and frolics are all too familiar, and I still thought this was one of the most gross wastes of money I have ever allowed the West End to inflict on me.

There is a fine line between farce that is, and asinine vacuity. First performed thirty years ago, this play may have captured the imagination in 1976, but where Frayn’s “Noises Off” and “Clockwise” succeeded, “Donkeys’ Years” fails desperately.

Tom Keatinge

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