My Night with Reg

Reviewer's rating

This tragicomedy from 1994 is set in the early 1980s as the impact of HIV/AIDS becomes felt in the London gay community. It takes the lives of three gay men who met at university and are now professionally established in their 30s and offers three snapshots of their lives and encounters. Starting with flat warming, then the second and third acts set in the same venue move on to deal with the aftermath of two funerals. Very successful from the outset, this play is now seen as Elyot’s masterpiece, a subtle multi-layered piece of writing that stands as one of the most eloquent and timeless commentaries on that traumatic period. It is hard, for example, to imagine the recent Channel 4 drama ‘It’s a Sin’ without this play as inspiration.

The secret to its success is its craftsmanship. There is dazzling verbal humour and slapstick and laughs based on situation and character. Brilliant time edits between the acts and the music of the era both confuse and surprise. Carefully filtered delivery of information creates delayed explosions of poignancy as the play progresses. Above all Elyot avoids the temptation to sloganize and preach by presenting this as a universal drama about secrets, the longing for love, the power of memory, and the impact of loss with which the widest of audiences can identify.

Given the quality of the writing no production of this play can really fail, but for it to succeed to its full potential requires tight ensemble acting of the highest quality and direction which is sensitive to the need for rapid-fire adjustments of pace and tone to match the quicksilver changes from high camp to intense pathos. Unfortunately, this production does not deliver these qualities often enough.

Things start promisingly: the spacious tunnel of a converted railway arch channels the audience’s attention ideally towards Lee Newby’s beautifully detailed and fussily over-dressed set, entirely appropriate as the home of the gentle, kindly, romantically frustrated homebody, Guy. But as the flat warming commences the pace is too measured, the cues too slow, and you get little sense of the energy and brio that crackles through the dialogue even when you just read it on the page. Moreover, the casting is simply uneven, with some of the actors muffling key lines or simply not registering the variety of moods their characters contain. This matters most in the somber final sections of quiet reflection that lack the sense of loss and tension of unresolved revelations that can make them unbearably moving in the right hands.

The best moments, of both light and shade, happen in the second section, largely through the work of the actors with the smallest roles. As the ill-matched odd couple, Benny and Bernie, Amos and Turkington generate some real pace and give-and-take, and in turn stimulate more interaction and engagement on the part of the other players. Even though they are lightly sketched they are fully believable in the situations in which they find themselves. Elsewhere the acting only delivers a broad-brush picture. Among the other actors, Paul Keating captures the pathos and romantic yearning in the anchor role of Guy but misses a lot of the light and shade that David Bamber and Jonathan Broadbent have found in this role. As the object of Guy’s unrequited devotion, Edward M Corrie has the physical presence to convince but misses the inner desperation and self-loathing to explain his character’s refusal to take responsibility for his actions. Gerard McCarthy conveys some of Daniel’s ‘joie de vivre’ and madcap energy, but his more serious commitments, especially to the mysterious and ultimately sinister Reg – whom we never get to meet – come across less well. As the young painter and decorator, Eric, James Bradwell gives us a lot of fresh-faced naivety but misses chances to land meaningful moments in the final scenes, which drag as a result. As with any ensemble piece, this production will probably develop tighter discipline and more nuance as it beds in over the next month; but at present, it delivers much of the comedy of the writing while missing many of the switchback moments of pathos and empathy that Elyot’s writing creates for those performers able to take and deliver them. The audience is more likely to see the play as a period piece as a result rather than the timeless depiction of universal aspirations and heartbreak it can be in the right hands.