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September 06, 2006

Christie Davies sees a play that should never have been revived and remembers Emmanuel College reunions: Donkeys' Years - Michael Frayn

Posted by Christie Davies

Michael Frayn's Donkeys' Years
directed by Jeremy Sams
Comedy Theatre, London
9th May - 16th December 2006

Donkeys' Years, a farce based on Michael Frayn's experience of a drunken reunion at Emmanuel College in the 1970s and contemporary sex-scandals among politicians at that time should not have been revived in 2006. It no longer works. Frayn decided to delete the 1970s comic references and he has nothing to replace them with. Since the 1970s there has been a great social transformation, such that the politicians in sex scandals are now all completely uneducated - Archer, Blunkett, Major, Prescott. None of them have an old College to disgrace or a College reunion to go to at which to play out their adulteries.

Such potential, never actual, sexual shenanigans as there are involve the master's wife, a former good time girl from Girton who has turned respectable but still cherishes a passion for one of the alumni now returning twenty-five years on. I won't reveal the plot but Feydeau it ain't.

The shorter, faster second act of the farce has its moments but the first is long and very tedious. Nothing happens and there are no good lines. Why should we laugh at stereotypes behaving as bores and talking in clichés? Frayn has become that which he seeks to mock. You can't get a spark by striking one cliché against another. Likewise a bad joke remains a bad joke, even when the author tries to pretend he wishes us to laugh at the person crass enough to tell it. Stoppard can pull that trick successfully but Frayn failed to bring it off. The master's wife, the former Rosemary Gilbert, married the senior tutor Harry Driver, who not only later become master but was knighted. So there has to be a reference to her being a "Lady Driver". Ha, ha! Ho, ho! Renewed chortles. As I listened I had the depressing feeling that I could have written better dialogue myself, something I could never say about a farce by Joe Orton, Alan Ayckbourn, or Tom Stoppard.

I am not claiming a talent for writing farce for the stage, merely reflecting on the fact that I went to the same College as Michael Frayn and have been to similar reunions to the one he experienced; only I stayed sober and can remember what happened. The initial stage set looks exactly like our alma mater and as the curtain rose there was the same old staircase. I peered to see if my name was written up at the side. Even as I write I am choking back the tears of nostalgia. Dear dead days before recall. But wait! Milling round on the stage are all the jolly chaps from my year come back once again for the reunion.

Ah, yes, my own reunions with Henry Jenk, now in property and with all those children, Laurence Charles Smith the literary one, Teaspoon who treats phobias, Goffers now a Professor of something studies, WEC who went into buses - we have heard the chimes of eleven together. What cocoa we drank! How we remembered our old text-books! And the ducks still sneak into Hall! What did Frayn give us instead - grey, bald and paunched medics, civil servants and hack journalists. Frayn's is like reality only duller, and smaller than life.

It looked as if things might improve when K. Snell, MA , a parasitologist at British Alkalis arrived on his bicycle and turned out to be a stage Welshman. From Shakespeare's Fluellyn, Owen Glendower and Parson Sir Hugh Evans to Mr Cheeseman the photographer in Dad's Army, the stage Welshman has been the glory of British foolery. However, playing a stage Welshman is far more difficult than being a stage Irishman or a stage Scotsman and poor Conrad Westmaas who played the part of Snell does not know how to do it.

It is easy to be a stage Irishman - all that is needed is to display an amiable and inebriated lack of cerebration and speak with a bit of a brogue and frequent ejaculations of "bejabers" and "begorrah". Sit in the bar of the Dublin Arms in Camden Town for half an hour and you'll easily get the hang of it. Likewise a Scotsman is no more than a simple formula - kilt, sporran, bagpipes and long periods of dour silence punctuated by bouts of avarice.

The stage Welshman is more difficult because the role depends on a rich and imaginative use of figurative language and Frayn has failed to give Snell the right lines for this. Snell is unnatural - a Welshman without his windbag, a kin without his knock. What can Frayn, an old Footlights writer, have been thinking of? Footlights was famous for its stage Welshmen like the one parchfully played by Jonathan Lynn in 1964. Or Russell Davies or Griff Rhys Jones - ludicrous Taffies all. Worse still Westmaas' accent slipped. Indeed in the first act I assumed Snell was assimilated Rotherham. He sounded as William Hague's children will one day sound as they lurch between the divine sounds of Ffion the crachach and the broad Yorksherity of "Will the Pop", who has now gone down the Pitt.

Because the dialogue and the cast's delivery are not up to it, all the burden of getting the laughs falls on the director Jeremy Sams' ability to get away from a very dreary first act and create a rushing to and fro, door slamming, woman hiding behind doors and curtains, everyone tumbling over finale. This he does very well indeed and panic and don't panic are the core elements in all good farce but Sams has to rely too much on physicality rather than words. The words are just not there, not even from those you might expect to provide them, like the silly left-wing fellow in Eng. Lit. Dr W. Taylor MA, PhD who is organizing industrial action among the porters.

Instead we get drunken brawls in which the medic gets a black eye, the M.P. does his back in, the civil servant gets kicked in the chunkies, the camp curate has his clerical collar torn off when he really wanted it to be his trousers and someone is thrown in the river or was it the pond with the up-market ducks next to the Odgery. Not very good really. Not in the same class as the Evelyn Waugh drunken revels with which Decline and Fall begins.

In fairness, our gay readers may like it. The reviewer of the play in the gay electronic epistle Rainbow Network, clearly hoped that in the ambidextrous twenty-first century, Frayn would shift the scandals in his direction. He wrote:

we've all dreaded that moment when someone from our past contacts us and suggests a reunion. It's never the school hunk who you'd drop anything and everything to see again (I'll bet he would)… Is your first crush still drop dead gorgeous? And does the number of classmates who've since come out conform to the national average?
The Rainbow man is so obsessed with this fantasy that he thinks that the play is about a reunion of former sixth-formers from an elite school. He has obviously never read it, let alone seen it which explains why he liked it.

Well it ain't like that and the only person in the play who is that way inclined is the Rev. R. D. Sainsbury, MA, a camp curate who is nothing like as outrageous as she should be. What's the point of having a queen in the cast if she doesn't scream and scream and scream.

Buggers and rugger buggers apart, I cannot see why anyone should find it funny. Still there are enough of these classes of men and their partners to make it a success. I hope Mr Frayn makes a lot of money and leaves Emma a substantial sum in his will.

Christie Davies, MA, PhD (Cantab) was a scholar of Emmanuel College and was in the 1965 Footlights Review My Girl Herbert as a stage Welshman. He is the author of the farcical Dewi the Dragon.


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I see from the link that alongside Christie Davies in that year's Footlights Review "My Girl Herbert" were Graeme Garden, Eric Idle, Germaine Greer and Clive James.

Perhaps Prof. Davies could give us his youthful reminiscences of these fine fellows sometime.

Posted by: Jonathan at September 8, 2006 01:03 PM
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"Buggers and rugger buggers apart, I cannot see why anyone should find it funny. Still there are enough of these classes of men and their partners to make it a success."

Haven't we got beyond this type of insult, yet? Such remarks reveal
Davies shortcomings as a critic.

Perhaps he is like the character in the play who finds himself with back trouble and his trousers down - he knows what he'd like to do but he simply isn't up to it.

Posted by: golly at May 28, 2008 12:35 PM
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