Last Updated on 24th April 2019
Rose Theatre Kingston
February 18 2014
In the 1970’s the English ruled the world in at least one area: slightly smutty comedy. The Carry On gang films were worldwide hits and on television the same type of humour was wildly popular: Dick Emery, Are You Being Served?, On The Buses, Up Pompeii and there are dozens more. They all adhered to basic principles, stock characters, falling trousers, prat falls, mistaken identities and incredible misunderstandings – all the key elements of farce. And they were hilariously funny, or at least that is how they are remembered.
In 1976 Michael Frayn’s Donkeys Years premiered and played to packed houses, snagging an Olivier Award for Penelope Keith along the way. Currently playing at the Rose Theatre in Kingston is Lisa Spirling’s sprightly revival of this classic farce.
Frayn is a genius and a clever wordsmith to boot. He orchestrates the silliness here with a precision that is formidable and even now, almost forty years on, some of his traps are so well laid that they prove genuinely surprising when sprung.
He is a master of characterisation too, allowing a role in a particular piece to be both a specific comic foil or agitator while at the same time having a resonance about real life, attitudes, beliefs and opinions that shimmers even as you laugh at or with the role.
Donkeys Years would have been a sensation in its time, because in its time it was fresh and yet familiar, edgy yet safe, taut yet perfectly overdone. With the passage of years, the frisson has gone, but the lustre, the sparkle and the genuine warmth of the piece remains. It may only occasionally make one laugh out loud now, but it constantly makes one feel cherished, happy and in excellent spirits.
Spirling ensures that the greatest errors for farce are not committed. Everything moves at a rollicking pace, almost no one seeks to over-egg their piece of the pudding too much, pause and silence proves as effective as gurning and complicated business. This is an uncomplicated but very precise rendering of Frayn’s play. And all the better for that.
There is a lovely set from Polly Sullivan which completely and successfully places the piece in the 1970’s (as do the delightfully perfect, but accordingly cringe-making, in-vogue costumes: so much beige!) and evokes a real sense of the University cities, Cambridge or Oxford. Emma Chapman lights everything very well indeed. The set change in Act One takes time but Spirling covers that with some silly improvised business which, actually, helpfully underlines who everyone is.
The first scene in Act One is delicious, as all of the various players are introduced and the audience is set up into thinking they know how things will pan out. It’s the cleverest part of the proceedings and the cast give Frayn precisely what his text requires.
The comedy centres on a College reunion. 25 years have passed since most of the characters have seen each other. Predictably, much has changed. One of the things not to have changed is Birkitt, the College Porter, still serving sherry, covering up indiscretions and keeping things in order. Keith Barron proves an old, slightly frail Birkitt but he has the right demeanour and delivery, and like a pair of well worn slippers, he feels right even though there might be better choices.
In the role created by Keith, Jemma Redgrave is that perfect combination of fussy, somewhat prim authority figure (she is wife to the Head) and tightly wound sexbomb. Her effortless charm and singular sense of self-awareness makes the most of everything she does: her routine with the bicycle in the first scene is beautifully layered, she builds the sense of desperation skilfully and with great humour. Redgrave gives the performance of the evening and the greatest aspect of it is that by the time she is done it is quite impossible to imagine Keith in the role. Quite a feat – and one that reflects her understanding of how the part needs to be played today rather than how it was best played when the play debuted.
Jamie Glover and Jason Durr play the boys – the ones the girls all wanted, the ones who had all the girls, the ones who were rivals and who now find themselves in the roles of Chief (Glover) and Indian (Durr). They are both excellent, Durr managing to find his inner maniac quite easily. Glover excels at comic silliness and his turn here as a hapless Education minister is delightfully played. It’s a stock farce character but Glover gives him life and roundness.
There are four other reunionists – Nicholas Rowe, who does a splendid line in silly old medical duffer; Simon Coates, the slightly older one who everyone joked about and who now is a writer/journalist (and therefore to be feared) but who no one can take seriously as a threat because of his combover, five daughters and endless bonhomie; John Hodgkinson is slightly too John Inman as Sainsbury, “the camp one” but not so much so that anything is spoiled; and Ian Hughes is divine from start to finish as the downtrodden, totally neglected Snell who has a dramatic transformation as a result of a huge misunderstanding and spectacularly tries to regain his lost youth.
Finally, there is James Dutton who, as Dr Taylor is the only one of the men in the cast who belongs at the College apart from Birkitt. Dutton makes the most of not a lot and is a refreshing counterpoint to the antics of the older crowd.
Time has moved on and with it has gone the freshness, the startling quality of this play. But it still works – and this company, especially Redgrave, Hughes and Glover (Dutton too) tickle the funny bone constantly. It’s the kind of play Britain used to be known for – a romp that pokes fun at institutions and the upper classes. As Spirling shows here, such plays have their place today.