With a university setting and a dramatis personae including a cleric, a doctor, a research fellow and a Parliamentary secretary of state for education, you could be forgiven for thinking “Donkey’s Years” might be Michael Frayn in stripped-down, intellectual-workout, “Copenhagen” mode. In fact, this 1976 treat, stripped-down in quite another sense, is a forerunner of his theatrical comedy masterpiece “Noises Off.” One part social comedy, one part farce, it’s in a genre-bending class of its own, what you might call an uproarious comedy of man-ners.
“Men Behaving Drunkenly” could well be the subtitle of Jeremy Sams’ splendid revival, which sees seven male ex-students meeting up on Peter McKintosh’s neatly re-created courtyard of an Oxbridge college for a reunion. Imagine a more gleefully heterosexual “The History Boys” reconvening after 25 years and you’re there.
Yet, as government civil servant Quine (James Dreyfus) glumly observes, “I should never have come. I knew it would be a disaster.” Little does he know how prophetic he’s being.
Now variously married, divorced, over- and under-employed, the former friends and enemies are busily renewing acquaintance with each other. Endless plays and movies have shown reunions are fertile territory for dramatic memories, regrets and revelations, and this is no exception. But Frayn builds comedy mountains from the molehills of male gaucherie and politesse by latching on to the fact that the Brits all appear to have master’s degrees in embarrassment.
Frayn is masterly when it comes to revealing the comic possibilities of not just the situation, but the language of such awkwardness. Knowing that faced with a crisis or just a pause in conversation, Brits have a terrible habit of leaping in, he earns laughs from the most inconsequential of chats.
He’s even better at underlining how people repeat themselves to get out of conversational holes. Take the meeting between best chums from days of yore Headingley (David Haig), now the government spokesman on education, and Buckle (Michael Simkins), a successful surgeon.
Delighted to see one another again, they brilliantly negotiate their way through an increasingly ridiculous exchange in which they enquire cheerfully after each other’s health. Headingley: “I’m fine. Fine fine fine fine fine.” To which, of course, Buckle replies, “Oh good. Good good good good good good.” On the page it’s drab; in performance, it’s delicious.
By the second scene, with the men all buoyed up by bottles from the college’s wine cellar, the repetitions have moved up a notch. There’s a woman in their midst, and not just any woman. This is Rosemary, a delightfully purse-lipped Samantha Bond, who was a student rather famous for night-time scrapes with the men. Upon graduating, she promptly married the master of the college.
Now a magistrate and a bicycle-riding, hair-pulled-back pillar of respectability, Rosemary defends herself to Quine’s tart recollections of her escapades: “There were 10 men to every woman at the university in those days. You have to remember that.”
What Quine and the others don’t know is that Rosemary has been carrying a torch all these years for fellow student Roddy Moore. She is also extremely short-sighted without her glasses, people end up swapping rooms, and the stage is now set for mistaken identity farce a-go-go. Director Sams, who revived “Noises Off” with merciless exactitude on both sides of the Atlantic, picks up where he left off.
Armed with extensive rewrites from Frayn, who has considerably cranked up the farce element, the second half of the first act and all of the shorter second are a whirlwind of activity, played with the kind of almost military comic precision that reduces auds to tears of laughter.
Stakes climb ever higher, with Rosemary terrified of being caught in a compromising position and Headingley, a grotesquely insincere politician with his eyes on the prime minister’s job, beside himself at the prospect of the spiraling, scandalous goings-on hitting the newspapers.
Sams doesn’t so much make his actors into a company as turn them into a well-oiled comedy machine. Bond is particularly winning, constantly on the verge of being inappropriately discovered, desperately trying to maintain an air of propriety by adopting a winning smile.
Escaping from a string of camp roles including Carmen Ghia in London’s “The Producers,” Dreyfus is hilariously sour as the lugubrious Quine. Meanwhile, gay duty is buoyantly taken by Michael Fitzgerald playing Dickie, who everyone thinks has come dressed as a vicar but who actually turns out to be one. Jonathan Coy manages to convey annoying — and therefore hugely amusing — cheeriness amidst the mayhem.
Cutting-edge, it ain’t. But this well-crafted revival reps a welcome addition for West Enders in search of seriously well-played laughs.