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Donkeys’ Years

Published 17 April 2008

Michael Frayn’s comedy about a university reunion may have been written almost 30 years ago, but it could just as easily be set in an Oxbridge college today. The rooms may have broadband these days, but the tatty furniture and elderly Head Porter are still in residence. More importantly though, Frayn’s well-observed script shows how human behaviour in certain situations never changes, whatever the era. Caroline Bishop went to the first night of Donkeys' Years at the Comedy theatre…

When a group of former college students meet up for a reunion 25 years after graduation, the main topics of conversation are the weather, how many children each has and a standard reply of “Fine, fine… yes fine” to the “How have you been?” question. After all, how do you condense 25 years of life into a brief reply to someone you didn’t like enough to keep in touch with?

With great comic timing, David Haig as Christopher Headingley MP heads an ensemble cast which conveys the oh-so-familiar awkwardness and self-analysis that comes out of a reunion situation. Each character is recognisable from everyone’s university or school days: the popular ones who have become successful but pompous; the brooding one with a cutting wit who thinks he’s too cool for a reunion but comes anyway; the one who was the butt of every joke; and the one who no one remembers.

Locked in the college over night, with only booze and each other for company, the men revert to their student days of drinking and throwing each other in the river. Samantha Bond provides the spice and much of the slapstick as the Master’s wife, Lady Driver, who did the rounds of the boys’ bedrooms back in the days when she was one of the only women in college and evidently made the most of it. Now a figure of respectability, her contained passionate nature still simmers behind those librarian specs and conservative attire, and she goes on a mission to find her favourite old lover, inadvertently becoming entangled with those she’d rather forget.

In the second act, with the boys becoming increasingly inebriated, the slapstick action centres on Kenneth Snell (Mark Addy), the boring one who lived in lodgings and feels he missed out on the fun of college life. Now a researcher in parasitology, he bores the pants off the others, becomes obsessed with Lady Driver and goes on a drink-fuelled rampage to regain and improve on his college days. Meanwhile, Haig, as Under-Secretary of State for Education Headingley, holds the whole thing together with his trousers round his ankles. His horror that his presumed drunken dalliance with Lady Driver may get into the papers is particularly apt in current political circumstances and shows how, once again, people don’t change. It’s quite comforting really.

CB

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