It’s a tragedy in itself that Kevin Elyot passed away before the revival of My Night with Reg. For his play, in its portrayal of a group of gay male friends living in the shadow of AIDS in the 1980s, is written with a heartfelt honesty that is often rare in the West End. It is a horribly funny, beautifully sad meditation on life, love and happiness, and absolutely holds its own twenty years after its first performance.
The three-act play revolves around three reunions, each with a shift in time, which take place inside main character Guy’s flat. It’s a homely space – a sad testament to his desire to settle down with a partner – and as his friends gather jovially, one that seems to shelter them from the harsher realities of the 1980s. There is the promiscuous John, for whom Guy has suppressed a lifelong love; long-term partners Bernie and Benny, who bicker entertainingly about domestic life; and the flamboyant, high-flying Daniel, whose partner Reg they all await. As time passes, however, the darkness of Aids begins to encroach on this cushy sphere, and the characters’ lives become haunted by past regrets and a growing sense of desolation.
The synopsis above may paint a bleak picture, but this is the very genius of Kevin Elyot’s writing: that it somehow remains a rapturous comedy from start to finish. The script is a powerhouse of juicy gags, as the characters banter and bitch their way through the vicissitudes of the play – and bit by bit we learn the farcical secret that they’ve all spent a night with Reg, who never appears.
And yet it is the enduring poignancy at the heart of the play which is most powerful. Beneath the celebration of gay culture and its various privileges, the characters are all lonely, indecisive, searching. They veer between euphoric dancing to melancholy contemplation: each of them suffers a seemingly unshakeable hollowness, able only to find fulfillment in the physical.
But the main reason that this particular revival stands out is owing to a terrifically talented, likeable cast. Jonathan Broadbent immediately earns our affections as the tender, unlucky soul of Guy, while Julian Ovenden brings a wayward loneliness to the youth-lamenting John. Richard Cant and Matt Bardock are perfectly mismatched as the dainty and rugged Bernie and Benny, respectively, and Geoffrey Streatfeild shines as Daniel, whose crass flamboyance belies a vulnerable sentimentality. There is also an endearing debut from Lewis Reeves as the young handyman whose optimism is indicative of a new generation.
It’s true that while My Night With Reg is a portrayal of gay men, sexuality is of peripheral importance. The central theme of the play – that human longing for love – is familiar to all, hence why it strikes such a brilliant chord. But above all, it re-affirms Kevin Elyot’s extraordinary talent as a playwright for a new generation, if sadly posthumously.