DONKEYS’ YEARS Rose, Kingston

GAUDEAMUS IGITUR!  A FAVE FRAYN FARCE RETURNS

Those who love a good farce – lost trousers, sock-suspenders,  nifty door-work, ridiculous fights and punctured dignity –  sometimes feel a bit sheepish, guiltily lowbrow. The answer is Michael Frayn:  philosopher, scholar,  intellectually dazzling yet by a great mercy of fate able to bring his gifts, and a certain devastating insider knowledge,   to pure mischief.  In Noises Off  he skewered the world of theatre;  here it is the rareified golden stone world of  an Cambridge college.  Thus the wildest moments of trouserless chaos can be dignified with lines like “I can’t just hand out Mature Studentships, on Sunday, in my pyjamas!”.   And drunken slurrings can include superbly cod-philosophical pronouncements like “We ought to be free of that kind of freedom”.  Discuss, on one side of the paper only.

Nicely realized by Polly Sullivan’s elegant inside-outside design,  this college is hosting a reunion of undergraduates from 25 years earlier.   Director Lisa Spirling plays ‘70s pop hits beforehand to remind us that it is a 1976 play, and justify a flare in the trousers and – critically – a confusedly excitable attitude to women.  There is just one: Jemma Redgrave as  the Master’s wife, hostess of the weekend and former party girl back when there were ten male students to every girl.  She deploys a lovely middle-aged yearning keenness, hoping her old flame Roddy will be among the returning men.

He isn’t.  Instead there is a  pompous junior minister (Jamie Glover),  a sour civil servant (Jason Durr),  John Hodgkinson in a clerical collar  whinnying “I’m a late vocation. I baptise babies, I church women”,  Simon Coates as a buttery-blond gossip writer  and Nicholas Rowe a willowy doctor.  After some uneasy middle-aged joviality  they disperse to dinner (cleverly staged in sound-effects  from the foyer as they ramble through the audience pretending to hail old friends).  They reassemble, flown with insolence and wine,  in a room they suppose to be that of the missing Roddy.  Whose analyst has banned him from attending;  so the room is occupied by Snell.

Shell is the unexpected star:  a shy, runty Welsh intestine expert with a ginger beard and a low-key mental crisis:“Am I going to spend the rest of my life between the duodenum and the ileum?”  he asks plaintively,   and realizes that he wasted his student years.  “I never wore a fancy waistcoat! I never wrote blasphemous poem!…I wasn’t old enough to be young!” .  That cry is the heart of Frayn’s play, and the evidence that it does, in the other sense, have a real heart.  Dammit, a lot of us feel like that sometimes, as youth recedes and shrinks away from our mundane middle-age.

As the plot intensifies, so does Snell’s crazed determination to live at last :   Ian Hughes, given this wonderful role,  takes it and runs with it.  Up over the top and down the other side, with all his RSC timing and an irresistible edge of mania. It’s cathartic.  And so, obviously, is the humiliation of the education minister.  Some things never date.

box office 08444 821 556 to  22 Feb     Supported by: Russell-Cooke

Rating:   four  4 Meece Rating

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