Turbine Theatre, London – until 21 August 2021
Reviewed by Alun Hood
When Kevin Elyot’s gay tragicomedy of manners premiered at the Royal Court in the early 90s it felt simultaneously like a full stop, or at least semi-colon, on the tortured AIDS dramas that preceded it, and a valuable forward-looking acknowledgment that gay men (note not gay PEOPLE…this is an uncompromisingly male-centric play) aren’t living a second tier version of their straight counterparts, and are capable of forming long term relationships, however toxic. In the wake of TV’s epoch-making It’s A Sin, which occupies a similar historical timeframe and the same sexual if not social milieu, My Night With Reg feels relevant and familiar, even to people who aren’t old enough to have lived through that tumultuous time.
Elyot’s writing remains magnificent: a keenly observed, almost Coward-esque opening sequence depicting spinsterish, old-before-his-time Guy showing off his spiffy new pad to his hunky, former Uni crush John and flamboyant best friend Daniel, is a High Comedy mini-masterpiece of pent up longing and social anxiety, before darkening into scenes of considerable distress and misery, yet still manage to be grimly funny, as the AIDS catastrophe bites into this trio of long standing friends, and their assorted hangers on and casual flings. The brilliance of the play lies in the exquisitely drawn characters, the bitter reality of much of it’s humour and a clear-eyed, not always positive but never judgemental, understanding of human relationships, specifically gay ones that sit outside heteronormative conventions. It is this astonishing accuracy, as well as it’s compassion and comedy, that saves Elyot’s text from seeming like a mere period piece.
Although I love the play I wish I could be more enthusiastic about Matt Ryan’s production of it, which skims the surface where it should cut deep, flattening so much of the rueful comedy and the heartbreak. It also feels miscast in a number of key roles. The addition of an interval after an all-too-fleet first scene may do wonders for the Turbine’s bar trade but disrupts the flow (Roger Michell’s terrific original staging at the Royal Court ran straight through), though this could be remedied somewhat by adding a second interval after the quietly shocking but brilliant middle section, as the play is very much like a piece of music in three movements.
Paul Keating is a fine actor, possessed of a haunting fragility and formidable emotional intelligence, and he does sterling work as home-making, torch-carrying Guy: the scene where he confesses all to James Bradwell’s likably straight-forward painter-decorator Eric is beautifully handled. As the endlessly lusted-after John, a somewhat wooden Edward M Corrie feels too downbeat from the outset, and Gerard McCarthy struggles to project the requisite charisma that an Alpha gay male like international art dealer Daniel -a human maelstrom of double entendre, outrageousness but genuine warmth, who should drive every scene he’s in- needs to have. There is little sense either of the central trio having been friends for years, with all the affection and joshing that goes with that history, nor of them being from a noticeably different social class from the other characters, and Elyot’s beautiful piece suffers as a result of it.
Stephen K Amos is great fun as foul-mouthed, priapic bus driver Benny but Alan Turkington is way too attractive and vital to convince as his hilariously uptight and dour mismatched partner, which loses a lot of comedy mileage. Lee Newby’s elegantly cluttered set is convincing, and evocatively lit by Rachel Sampley.
It’s always a pleasure to re-encounter a script this good, and while the late Mr Elyot wrote several other fine plays, this is his masterpiece. Anybody encountering it for the first time even in a production as patchy as this one will know that they’re watching something special.