This first London revival of My Night with Reg since its award-winning debut in 1994 proves a worthy tribute to Kevin Elyot, who died a couple of months ago after contributing to early rehearsals. At the time, the play – which was to transfer from the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs to the West End – was seen as an incisive account of how a liberated gay lifestyle was forced to confront the lethal reality of AIDS, as well as being the first British ‘gay play’ to gain a wider theatre audience. Twenty years on, with HIV/AIDS very much a liveable condition and gay marriages legalised in this country, My Night with Reg still stands up strongly as a tragicomic depiction of the tangled web of human relationships, where love and sex jostle in uneasy co-habitation.
Set in the London flat of thirty-something copywriter Guy over four years in the late 1980s, this three-act play is marked by a flat-warming party and two funerals involving a group of gay friends. The lonely, domesticated Guy has never been able to express his love to John since they met at university, while John confides in him that he is having an affair with Reg, the partner of another uni friend, art dealer Daniel. The situation darkens further after Reg’s death from AIDS, when it emerges that he has slept with most of the men in their circle, now all at risk.
Although My Night with Reg deals with the end of an era-defining horror of AIDS (not to mention loneliness, betrayal and insecurity), Elyot’s approach is very different from two earlier, celebrated but bombastic American plays on the subject, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. In a very British, understated way, the play begins a bit like a sitcom, with plenty of comic moments along the way, before ending on a movingly elegiac note. Elyot’s wit is matched by his craftsmanship, in a cleverly constructed piece in which every detail counts, including a superb use of an ‘unseen character’ (Reg) who is nonetheless crucial to the story in the way he connects everyone.
Robert Hastie’s entertaining but sensitively judged production allows the comedy its full impact, without undercutting the seriousness of the themes, moving from a camp David Bowie song-and-dance routine to a tearful confessional with assurance. Peter McKintosh’s set neatly re-creates a 1980s-style furnished living room, complete with newly painted conservatory down the windows of which rain streams.
Jonathan Broadbent gives a very engaging performance as the likeable but frustrated Guy, always the bride and never the bridesmaid, as he acts as confidant to the others’ secrets. Julian Ovenden gives the attractive but irresponsible John a poignant awareness of his own failings, while Geoffrey Streatfeild’s enjoyably flamboyant Daniel becomes subsumed by grief and doubt. There is also strong support from Richard Cant as the dull but desperate half of an amusing odd couple with Matt Bardock’s forthright, promiscuous bus driver, and Lewis Reeves as a younger, naive Brummie housepainter who is learning fast about the gay metropolitan lifestyle.