Kevin Elyot died on 7 June 2014, shortly after the Donmar had announced its plans to revive his best known play. This sad event meant that questions as to whether or not this part-subsidised theatre ought to be reviving a play which had a decent West End run relatively recently were replaced by references to a “timely tribute”. However, first thoughts were that maybe it is not such a tribute to stage a revival which could be seen to label this gifted writer as a one-hit wonder and maybe a play the specifics of which are rooted in gay lifestyles of the early 1990s would not do justice to a genuine groundbreaker of British theatre. A stage adaptation of Elyot’s 2007 television work Clapham Junction, still up to date, provocative and challenging to any audience, could perhaps have proved a more appropriate tribute. In contrast, My Night With Reg is a staid parlour piece, rather fitting with the current branding that the Donmar seems to have opted for, but, as soon as this production gets going, two things become clear – firstly, that all of the details which date the play are irrelevant and secondly, that it is not simply a “gay play”, its themes are universal and all that is needed to identify with it is to be alive. Guy (Jonathan Broadbent) is the type that everyone likes and confides in but no-one fancies and he has been infatuated with John (Julian Ovenden) since University days; John is having an affair with Reg (never seen), partner of Daniel (Geoffrey Streatfeild), whilst two other friends, Benny (Matt Bardock) and Bernie (Richard Cant) are bound loosely together in a rocky relationship. They are all so self-absorbed that they are incapable of recognising what is going on around them. We first see the group at a party to celebrate Guy moving into a new flat with a conservatory just being finished off by Eric (Lewis Reeves) a young builder from Birmingham. These are all characters yearning for unattainable happiness, just like those in a Chekhov play, but, whereas in Chekhov the looming cloud was revolution, here the unmentioned elephant in the room is HIV/AIDS. They hold on to feelings, unable to express them until opportunities have passed them by; their relationships are undermined by deception, their friendships are built on top of lies and they find fleeting solace in the form of the poisonous Reg. Elyot writes these characters not as if they are people that he has known, but as if he has been them all himself and the performances of the actors in bringing them to life are perfection. Notwithstanding its underlying bleakness, the play is essentially a comedy with blisteringly funny dialogue and Robert Hastie’s unhurried production brings out all the humour and all the despair. It adds up to the Donmar doing what the Donmar does best and, whilst I have criticised the theatre recently for sitting on the sidelines whilst its rivals embrace exciting new work, this is a production which leaves no room for such criticism, only for celebration.
Performance date: 7 August 2014