A good farce relies on the immaculate comic timing of its cast to ensure its success. And fortunately the ensemble cast of Jeremy Sams’ revival of this comedy of friends reunited is more than up to the task. I say fortunately because in lesser talented hands the flaws in this rather dated and dusty play would be all the more apparent than they are at the moment
In Michael Frayn’s 1976 comedy, returning to the West End for the first time since its initial run, a group of friends return to their university college for their twenty-five year reunion. Life has taken them on different paths in the intervening decades, one is a high-flying surgeon, one a Fleet Street stalwart and Christopher Headingly (the superb David Haig) has become a senior government minister.
Donkey’s Years begins with some gentle comedy about the unexpected effects the passing of time can have on people, old feuds resurfacing, nostalgia high on the agenda, but things soon build to a more frantic pitch once the wine starts flowing and the college gates are locked for the night. The catalyst for the night’s increasingly silly events is Lady Driver (Janie Dee), who as an undergraduate had something of a reputation for wildness (and was much desired by many of the assembled friends as a result) but has now settled down to an eminently sensible existence as the wife of the college Master.
As the lone woman in the cast, Dee holds her own amidst all the testosterone, though it’s something of a thankless role, requiring her to be both prim, difficult and hopelessly dense. She’s supposed to be a magistrate and a pillar of the community yet has to be rescued by Headingly from a variety of increasingly complex situations (and eventually, inevitably ends up in her underwear). Dee tackles the role full on, however, milking her character’s contradictions for all their comic worth and just about trampling the show’s low key misogyny under a pair of killer scarlet heels.
She’s surrounded by a very strong cast. David Haig, always an asset to any production, is superb as Headingly, especially in the last act when having strained his back, he spends the entire final scene hobbled by a pair of trousers he’s unable to pull up. His growing despair and resignation is a joy to watch, and amongst the ensemble, Green Wing’s Karl Theobald is also great fun as the geeky outsider who no one remembers. As is Michael Simkins as the pompous syringe-waving surgeon.
As good as the performances are they can’t quite mask some of the play’s shortcomings. The play seems to genuinely lament the time when Oxbridge colleges were elitist boys’ clubs and a subplot about protest and change is rather half-heartedly handled. Class quibbles aside, it’s also difficult to believe that these men, such good friends at the time and now all prominent members of their respective fields have never had occasion to meet up in the past quarter century. Despite this fairly key flaw in its premise, Donkey’s Years is often hilarious, thanks in the main to the well-choreographed antics of the cast, but also as a result of the standard of the writing. Frayn would of course go on to write Noises Off, and knew how to compose a good comic scene.
It’s not quite enough though, and while I found myself laughing on several occasions (mostly as a result of Haig’s onstage antics) I wasn’t sent into the paroxysms of red-faced, teary-eyed guffawing that afflicted some of the audience. Donkey’s Years kept me mildly amused for two hours, and that’s unfortunately the best I can say about it.