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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Donkeys' Years
Comedy Theatre 2006-2007

Farce requires two things beyond a comic situation. The first is speed - franticness is of the essence, and a sense of mounting panic is the engine that generates the fun. The second is a cast of natural and experienced farceurs - other actors, however talented, will always be visibly working at being funny, and visible effort is death to a genre that must flow with inevitability.

Michael Frayn's 1976 farce, as directed by Jeremy Sams, meanders when it wants to gallop out of control, and its quite talented cast are all straining so hard to be funny that too much of the fun escapes. It has its share of chuckles, but they're chuckles where there should be guffaws, and silences where there should be chuckles.

Digging out my old notes, I find I wrote in 1976 'Some moments but forgettable,' and indeed I had forgotten all but the basic situation. The scene is a 25th reunion of a small Oxbridge college, and the basic joke is that the middle-aged men get drunk and act like undergraduates. Things are complicated by the fact that a once rather promiscuous female student is now the Master's wife, and what farcical action there is to the play comes from various attempts to hide her in various Old Boys' rooms.

At play's centre - that is to say, the character for whom things are meant to get snowballingly ever more frantic - is the always attractive and admirably hard-working David Haig. He's an actor who never fails to deliver a solid performance, one who can make his characters sympathetic even when they're ridiculous or despicable, and he delivers most of the evening's fun as the government minister who talks too much and tries to retain his dignity with his trousers around his ankles.

Haig works hard at carrying the show, and that's the problem - we are always aware of a responsible and industrious actor, and are never allowed to relax and enjoy the character's panic. Still, Haig is just about the only thing worth watching.

A couple of the other actors are able to pull what humour there is in their one-dimensional characters - Mark Addy as the poor shnook nobody remembers, Michael Fitzgerald as a jolly old queen - but others, like Edward Petherbridge's head porter or James Dreyfus's class cynic, are simply given too little to work with, while the characters played by Michael Simkins, Jonathan Coy and Chris Moran barely exist at all, and are just there to make up the numbers.

Samantha Bond is lovely as the still-amorous Master's wife, but demonstrates absolutely no instinct for comedy at all, and might just as well be a football they take turns hiding from each other.

The night I saw this, the median age of the audience hovered around sixty, and the ambling and amiable pace of the production seemed to satisfy them while a farce with Ray Cooney-type energy and pacing might have been too exhausting.

If that's who you or your guests are, this show might be enough of an adventure in comedy for you.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Donkeys' Years - Comedy 2006