London is another planet and Richard Cameron's Gong Donkeys comes to us from a long way off – Doncaster to be precise. It feels circa 1950, a world of dominating Dads, Dickens, the St Leger and local history societies. The only thing that really connects it to more obvious contemporary preoccupations is the telly which infiltrates itself indelibly into the fantasy games of Cameron's odd pack of adolescents.
Cameron, a former teacher, is a past-master at translating the minutiae of boring provincial – especially teenage, northern - life to the rest of the country. Gong Donkeys is no exception but unlike some of his earlier pieces (this is the sixth play of Cameron's to be premiered by Mike Bradwell at the Bush), there is something more contrived if no less telling about his observations.
Burn Gorman's bespectacled, limping Mink, for example, is both a bully, and dangerously sharp. He may seem a few vol-au-vents short of a banquet but he knows exactly what game he is playing unlike Gobbo (Peter Bramhill), his softer sidekick and fall-guy. Charlene (Andrea Lowe) makes up the third member of their teenage gang, soon joined by her posher young cousin David (a beguilingly innocent Rory Jennings) whose parents are in the process of a messy break-up. She also knows which make-believe game she is playing: tv soaps rewound.
Cameron, for once, makes rather heavy weather of this fantasy-reality split which shows Charlene's Dad, Robert, a self-styled local history and Dickens expert (a blusteringly authoritarian Edward Peel) as much in thrall to fantasy as the adolescents and the `gong donkey'. A `gong donkey', according to Mr Dickens, is `a ravin' drunken lunatic staggerin' about our fair town who kept makin' 'orrible noises somewhere between a gong and the brayin' of an ass'. Cameron knows discrimination when he sees it and as always with him, it is his compassion that is most appealing.
Deelie, Robert's long-suffering wife, in Anita Carey's performance, is a beautifully understated portrait of patient loving kindness, whilst Gorman's very funny but manipulative Mink is gradually revealed as the product of a broken home, possibly due to his father’s departure because of Mink's questionable mental state.
Cameron's mingling of fact and fiction in Mink, Gobbo and Charlene's make-believe, acting out play is often rib-tickling if also cruel as a reflection of teenage paranoia, the grown-up world and wish-fulfilment. Bradwell cleverly directs with an eye to the play's fairground quirkiness befitting a postcard from a time-warp.
- Carole Woddis