Donkey’s Years / Desert of the Real

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Oxford and Cambridge are home, not only to dreaming spires, but also to aspiring drama. Donkeys’ Years is firmly fixed in college. It follows the return of a group of college friends, coming back twenty-five years to catch up and revisit their old haunts. As you’re escorted by a ‘college porter’ past the mocked-up college façade to take your seat, you may wonder why you are here. After all, your real college is much more, well, real. But this charming, witty play will sweep you along, reminding you why you sit up till the small hours writing essays, why you dash desperately from class to lecture, why you love Oxford in the first place.
The characters certainly ring true to my college experience. They’re all here: the popular one who became a minister; the miserable one, still carping about the deficiencies of the college; the one you always thought was gay, but never had the courage to ask, and whose dog collar seems both shocking, and somehow just right. And the girl who married the wrong man, still hoping for a quick drink and a catch –up with the one who got away.
Maanas Jain plays Headingly, a junior minister, perfectly evoking a politician with chummy confidence and slight desperation, while Holly Midwinter-Porter captures the haughtiness and insecurity of Lady Driver with a beautifully balanced and funny, performance. Jain and Dom Conte as a successful surgeon are wonderful from the moment they enter, evoking the stumbling awkwardness of two old friends meeting for the first time in years, and from the beginning the action and the dialogue are snappy and titillating.
The protagonists find the sherry and their half-submerged student selves getting the better of their adult personas. Lady Driver’s assertion ‘I’m an entirely different sort of person now’ is not nearly as true as she thinks, or wishes. This is not so much a regression as a recognition that we never really move on. James Phillips’ Quine, who missed his opportunity to live in college the first time round, and is keen to get a second chance now. As he reminds us, while the world outside may provide you with kids, fame and fortune, the best years of your life happen behind these sandstone walls and dreaming spires.
Desert of the Real is an unfocused but passionate new piece of student theatre. It mixes familiar Oxfordisms (KA, QI Bar etc.) with specific Middle Eastern terms. Set both in Oxford and Iraq, the play follows the fortunes of a student couple, Nick and Alice, when Alice decides to travel to Iraq.  We are thrown in medias res, and it takes a while to appreciate the eccentric Eastern characters who intermingle with typical Oxford types.
The writing captures the tone and idiosyncrasies of Iraqi and Israeli English but tends towards the turgid at points. Even Oxford students don’t regularly philosophize with this intensity, an intensity that would make Montaigne blush. Yet there are some beautifully balanced scenes, notably when Alice, excellently portrayed as a student looking for a cause, breaks down somewhere in Iraqi Kurdistan. She sits by the roadside with the driver, who, between reflectively spitting and cursing the engine, reveals the difficulties inherent in being an ordinary man in modern Iraq. Based on Ben Judah’s experiences in Iraq, this scene palpitates with tension and an undercurrent of strained humanity and concealed violence.
The scenes in Oxford are immediately livened up through the arrival of James Kingston as Ibrahim al-Ansar. Kingston not only captures the bravado of al-Ansar, but also the mystery and danger. His accent, and that of James Schneider as Dr. Regev, may seem incongruous at first, but their shrewdness is brought out by sensitive writing and performance.
The play hides scene changes using news clips, and as all hell begins to break loose, the suspense mounts. Lacking though is a sense of humanity, of hope. We see shadowy and complex politic movements run through a very fast-paced piece of drama, but do not have enough sense of the people involved. As the apocalypse nears, political posturing overwhelms the concerns of the human heart.By Tim Sherwin

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