Donkey’s Years

KIERAN CORCORAN sups a warming broth of Oxbridge archetypes.

holly olivia braine Howard Theatre Oxbridge porters village bicycle

Howard Theatre, 16th-20th November, 7.45pm, £7-10

Directed by Alex Lass and Lucy Caines


Oxbridge students playing nostalgic Oxbridge alumni at a reunion: so much could go wrong, but thankfully it doesn’t. With wide-eyed freshers finding their feet at the ADC this week, you could do a lot worse than taking a detour to Downing’s opulent Howard Theatre for a night of confident and consistently amusing farce.

Mingling Porterhouse Blue chortles at the College life of yesteryear with caricature and occasional flourishes of physical comedy keeps the laughs coming for over an hour without tedium. Donkey’s Years charts the increasingly inebriated misadventures of six old boys reunited in College after 25 years. With no character clocking in at under 45 years of age (and Birkett the porter having a seemingly limitless lifespan), a student cast could be forgiven for struggling to pull this off.

While I couldn’t quite believe every character was pushing fifty, the actors managed to affect and maintain a definite air of middle aged nostalgia. Nobody went the extra mile with beer bellies and bald patches, but I appreciate that this may hurt their chances at the afterparty. That said, a good, mossy spread of facial hair in the cast helped maintain the illusion of maturity.

Obviously this is a production where the majority of the audience are going to be more ‘in’ on the jokes than usual, but a lot of polish has been applied to the familiar Cambridge tropes. Enter the porter. Matt Kilroy’s portrayal of everyone’s favourite bowler-hat-sporting College official carries off an ostensible deference, but with a rapier flash of wit never far off. Oddly enough, his highest point actually comes in the interval. While the rest of the cast dine off-stage, Kilroy manfully holds our attention as the set is rearranged, transfixing the audience with the indescribably (sorry) entertaining consumption of a banana, a humble fruit fast becoming a mainstay of the best Cambridge theatre.

The standard of acting was universally high, and every character pulled their fair share of laughs, but a few performances rose above the rest. Holly Olivia Braine, the only cast member who gets to wear a dress, nets at least as many chuckles as the chaps while she tries to escape her past promiscuity, uncomfortably symbolised by her well-used bicycle. Occasionally resisting the ubiquitous silliness, Braine ekes out moments of genuine emotion which are touching despite their farcical context.

Back in the realms of the ridiculous, Henry Carr never failed to delight as an irrepressibly camp clergyman channelling the spirit of Anthony Blanche. Although powerfully clichéd (high voice and flouncy walk both garishly checked), it’s what the script demands, and doesn’t stop him being damn funny. Likewise, Craig Nunes’ bewildered Welsh backpacker archetype was ably plumbed for all available laughs, given a touch of spice via an all-pervading intestinal fixation. In fact, these two characters, intensely predictable but nonetheless hilarious, are much like the performance itself. Beautifully paced and well delivered, the jokes still get the desired effect even though we all saw the punchlines coming a mile off.

This farce is very clear about what it’s going to do, and does it in high style. Surrounded by the pillars and faux Acropolis curtains of the Howard Theatre, anything else would feel out of place. As it happens, Donkey’s Years is supremely appropriate and shamelessly entertaining. Even though £7 is a little steep for a student production, laughs are doled out so generously that I doubt anybody will feel hard done-by.