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49 Donkeys Hanged review at Theatre Royal, Plymouth – ‘intensely self-referential’

Ed Gaughan in 49 Donkeys Hanged at Drum, Theatre Royal Plymouth Ed Gaughan in 49 Donkeys Hanged at Drum, Theatre Royal Plymouth

Alas, poor Eeyore. While driving in South Africa In 1999, playwright and regular Kneehigh collaborator Carl Grose saw a billboard outside Johannesburg that bore the words: “49 Donkeys Hanged.”

It turned out to be a headline from a local paper and Grose became fascinated with finding out the story behind it. What drives someone to hang 49 donkeys? What are the logistical implications? How would you even go about stringing up a donkey?

This is the basis for Grose’s play. He transplants the story to the south-west of England and creates a protagonist called Stanley Bray (Ed Gaughan), “a Cornish farmer at the end of his rope” compelled to hang donkeys for reasons that remain unclear even to him. It’s almost as if he were being propelled by forces beyond his control.

Stanley has a wife, Joy (Veronica Roberts), who hasn’t left the house in 30 years, nor moved from her armchair, so gripped is she with grief for their missing son, Bobby. Stanley’s friend Sally (Buffy Davis) also works in an abattoir and sports an apron spattered in bovine gore.

After a while it becomes apparent that the voices in Stanley’s head might well be the authorial interventions of a certain Carl Grose – or rather a version of him played by William Hartley (keep up at the back) – a narrative puppeteer making his characters commit vile deeds for his own amusement. In this way, Grose ends up in his own story, trying to justify his original appropriation of it while trying not to end up meeting the same fate as all those unfortunate donkeys.

Simon Stokes has staged the play in semi-promenade. He’s removed the Drum studio’s seats, replaced them with hay bales and scattered the actors and audience around the room.

Designer Bob Bailey has created a mini slaughterhouse complete with convincing cow carcass and almost 50 miniature deceased donkeys. Composer and musician Dom Coyote walks among the space singing country music, and the piece isn’t short of atmosphere. But as it becomes increasingly self-referential, so it becomes harder to figure out what it’s trying to achieve. Grose, the writer and the character, starts to question his intentions: who does this story really belong to? What right does the author have to it?

The play tiptoes around ideas of cultural and creative appropriation, and the thievery that is part and parcel of authorship, but doesn’t come to any conclusions. Nor does the production justify making its audience stand for the duration. There are some funny lines, the performances are entertaining and kudos to whoever made those donkeys, but none of this stops it feeling like 80 minutes of metafictional belly-scratching.

The Tin Drum review at Everyman Theatre, Liverpool – ‘glorious, anarchic storytelling’

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Darkly comic and intensely self-referential piece about the ownership of stories