REVIEW: Cast originals deliver the laughs as Drop the Dead Donkey hits the Chichester stage

Drop the Dead Donkey: The Reawakening! by Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, directed by Derek Bond, Chichester Festival Theatre, until Saturday, February 24. Also playing Brighton Theatre Royal from Tuesday to Saturday, March 5-9.
Drop the Dead Donkey - The Reawakening! (contributed pic)Drop the Dead Donkey - The Reawakening! (contributed pic)
Drop the Dead Donkey - The Reawakening! (contributed pic)

There was a huge buzz about the Festival Theatre tonight. You had to queue to get into the car park. You could barely move in the foyer. And once you were in your seats, the anticipation was almost palpable.

And fair enough. After all, this was – 34 years since it first started and 26 years since it finished – Drop the Dead Donkey reimagined for 2024, on stage and with its 1990s characters thrust into the very, very different news world of now. Importantly, it was also Drop the Dead Donkey with a remarkable number of cast originals reassembled for the reunion: Susannah Doyle, Robert Duncan, Ingrid Lacey, Neil Pearson, Jeff Rawle, Stephen Tompkinson (see interview here) and Victoria Wicks.

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For those who watched it all first time round, there was the pleasure of recognition, the curiosity of finding out how the characters have fared in the interim and the fun of finding out that they really, really have or indeed haven’t changed.

For those of us who for no reason whatsoever have never seen a single second of the original, there was the different delight of discovery – plus the wondering whether it would all actually stand up without any prior knowledge. The great news is that very, very largely it does.

Of course, you would undoubtedly get so much more out of this cast of quirky, clashing failures if you knew them beforehand, but at the very least, tonight was an enjoyable invitation to belatedly take the plunge, go back home, track down the series and see how it all began.

But for aficionados and newbies alike, there was no doubting the cleverness of all the updating – and there are certainly some blistering one-liners. Neil Pearson arrives with a priceless line about the post office scandal; the play beautifully formulates the only sensible question to ask an archbishop; and it mickey-takingly captures wonderfully the sense of awe in which we are all supposed to hold algorithms these days, the way we are supposed to revere them as they learn about us (messing up everything in the meantime).

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There’s also a cracking line about Prince Andrew. Nothing is sacred. The boundaries are pushed. But that line about Navalny. Certainly quick, but probably too soon and it didn’t sit well. But otherwise, Drop the Dead Donkey: The Reawakening! is nicely played, nicely judged, very well set up and delivered at cracking pace with the laughs coming thick and fast.