Donkeys’ Years – Rose Theatre Kingston, London

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews.

Writer: Michael Frayn

Director: Lisa Spirling

Reviewer: Alice McGuigan

Rating: 4.5

Photo: Alastair Muir
Photo: Alastair Muir

“I wasn’t old enough to be young.” At an organised reunion in their old university halls, six men politely reminisce about their days as students, over “jolly good food” and “jolly good wine”. But it is not long before they are crawling around with a stolen beer barrel, chucking one another into the river and inviting the Lady Driver to dash between their bedrooms. Their evening transgresses into veteran college boy banter and a series of drunken antics. Meanwhile, Snell, having never lived in halls, realises all the fun he missed out on and endeavours to take his fair share now. After twenty-five years, little seems to have changed in Michael Frayn’s laugh-out-loud, 1970s bedroom farce.

Polly Sullivan’s symmetrical set shifts from the external university grounds (where even the bicycles are mirrored) to the internal individual rooms of these former students. In an impressively swift scene change, two strips of shrubbery are lifted to reveal parallel bookcases, curtains are closed and the quirky display of slanting frames and grand chandeliers floating above the set, suddenly lights up. This subtle transition from sunny day to brooding night and public to private, cleverly builds up to the comically decadent scenes to come.

Director, Lisa Spirling, saves a lot of the physical humour for Act Two, where Frayn’s comical devices explode into a series of bleeding eyes and syringed buttocks. But the farce is not always pushed far enough in Act One and as a result some of the comic potential is missed. Each character, defined largely by their respected professions as Junior Minister, Doctor or Writer, is already being undermined by their intoxicated states. The irony of Sainsbury’s (John Hodgkinson) rude songs and mocking striptease, which he unwittingly performs before Lady Driver, could therefore be heightened.

Each contrasting personality, whether they are the eternal optimist, cynical lech or peace-keeper of the party, is strongly emphasised by each cast member and results in a self-fulfilling “melting pot” of comical clashes. The biggest of all is Jemma Redgrave’s panicked representation of Lady Driver who, as the only female in the play, is trapped in their halls at wits-end. Her position is only made funnier by the already established romantic history she has with some of them as boys. However, it is Ian Hughes’s highly animated performance of a small, Welsh and ginger-bearded Snell that constantly has the audience in stitches. Hughes dramatically plays out Snell’s sudden change from an ignored outcast to frightening maniac, as his amusing wittering transforms into hysterical karate chopping.

Trousers hanging around ankles (or off entirely), the circumstances of this university reunion inevitably lead to a series of embarrassing, humiliating and misinterpreted events. One thing is for certain: they definitely don’t need free brandy in schools.

Runs until 22nd February



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