14 February 2014

Donkeys' Years at the Rose Theatre

I tried to like Donkeys' Years but despite some good laughs we never really got on.

I went to see it as part of my concerted campaign to fall in love with the Rose, I've been 17 times but not managed it yet, which meant buying tickets for four shows in the current season. The first, Fallen Angels, was brilliant.

I was in almost the same seat as the last time, A35, which meant a good central view of the stage. Row A was again preceded by four rows (AA to DD) so my front row seat was some way away from the stage.

Donkeys' Years tells the tale of an Oxbridge 25 years reunion. The scene is set very slowly as each of the former students arrives at the college in turn and talks for a while with the porter who was there in their student days. We also meet the young (academic) doctor who lives in and supervises the student house and the wife of the master of the college who was a student with the group having the reunion.

This is a mixed group with, amongst others, a junior cabinet minister, a senior civil servant who works in the same department, a journalist, a research biologist, a surgeon and (possibly) a vicar.

After the slow start the characters were my second problem. They were all fairly shallow and exaggerated, almost stereotypical.That was a disappointment but not necessarily a great problem as farces do not usually rely on complex characters for their laughs.

The jeopardy that defines the farce is the master's wife's attempt to pick up on a relationship from 25 years ago but he does not come to the reunion and she find herself hiding in the minister's bedroom instead.

And that was my third problem, a good farce needs some real jeopardy and being found with a woman in your bedroom during a reunion never seemed serious enough.

That said, once the situation was set, there were a lot of laughs albeit from fairly simple and obvious sources. At times it felt a little like an old ITV sit-com in that there were jokes that you could see coming but they were still jokes and jokes can make you laugh despite your better instincts.

Of course Donkeys' Years is quite a bit cleverer than an old ITV sit-com but it never quite escapes the farce-by-numbers feeling. The happy feeling generated is ephemeral and I left thinking that I had enjoyed myself but with no interest in seeing the play again.

On the plus side, the acting was wonderful. Jemma Redgrave stood out from the crowd, possibly because she was the only woman and she was certainly the most complex character, but whatever the reason, she sparkled.

To try and summarise all this, Donkeys' Years was funny but I expected something more from a play written by Michael Frayn and with an established cast.

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