Friday, August 08, 2014

*My* Night With Reg

Scary but true.  It's been three years since I have been to the Donmar Warehouse.

I have seen two Donmar productions in the past year but I have not visited the theatre!  By way of explanation, I saw CORIOLANUS at the NT Live showing at the Ritzy Cinema (an experience I am still trying to get my head around) and I also saw THE WEIR when it transferred to the Wyndhams Theatre but nope, no actual visit since seeing Jude Law and Ruth Wilson in ANNA CHRISTIE.

It's not that I haven't wanted to see recent productions there but the Donmar is now one of the theatres that usually sell out by the time of the first preview so as you can't beat them, you have to join 'em!  So back on the mailing list and back in the front row of the circle...

And what a production to come back to, a timely revival of Kevin Elyot's quietly devastating 1994 play MY NIGHT WITH REG.  It has taken 20 years to get a London revival - the sadness is that Elyot died less than two months ago during the pre-production for this production.  He was such a fine writer, perceptive but with a deadly cutting wit, and it's a shame that he leaves only a handful of plays alongside his other writing credits for television, namely his Agatha Christie adaptations which included the last David Suchet Poirot episode and my personal favourite, his BBC adaptation of Patrick Hamilton's TWENTY THOUSAND STREETS UNDER THE SKY.

MY NIGHT WITH REG opened at the Royal Court in 1994 and was such a success that it transferred to the Criterion and then the Playhouse Theatres, later being filmed for the BBC with the original cast of Anthony Calf (John), David Bamber (Guy), Joe Duttine (Eric), John Sessions (Daniel), Roger Frost (Bernie) and the late Kenneth MacDonald (Benny)

With that great cast I had doubts if I could really enjoy this revival but the combination of Elyot's timeless writing, Robert Hastie's insightful direction and a cast that is truly an ensemble made for a wonderful experience.

The play has been compared to US plays that dealt with the AIDS crisis - THE NORMAL HEART, AS IS etc. - but, like Tony Kushner's ANGELS IN AMERICA, Elyot was already looking back to the 1980s when writing his play so with hindsight, he could view the crisis with less hysteria than the Americans.  Unlike these other plays REG has a profundity and a universality that leaves the American plays thin and trite.  I remember seeing the film version of Terrence McNally's LOVE! VALOR! COMPASSION, also written in 1994 and also based around a group of gay men and almost ran from the cinema at the sheer banal cutesiness of it all compared to what Elyot had written.

Shy and lonely Guy is throwing a housewarming party in his new ground floor flat and has invited his old University friend John who he has silently adored for years although they hardly see each other.  John, oblivious to Guy's unrequited love, confides in him about his sex life and, after another University friend Daniel stops by briefly between air flights, John tortures Guy further by telling him he slept with Daniel's partner Reg the night before. Exasperated by his friends' teasing about his non-existent sex life, Guy blurts out that on a recent trip to Lanzarote he had unprotected sex with a man who got him drunk.  Also at the party is Eric, a young chap who is helping to paint Guy's conservatory and who acts oblivious to the passes made at him by John and Geoffrey.

Imperceptibly the scene jumps ahead in time to the get-together after Reg's funeral and the same group are joined by Guy's friends Bernie and Benny, a couple who separately also confess to the hapless Guy that they too slept with Reg.  Guy, who also has to listen to his beloved John's pain over losing his sometime lover Reg, is encouraged by the others to make a pass at Eric.  he clumsily attempts to but is equally clumsily rebuffed.  It's only after another time shift and another funeral that some truths are revealed and some lies are maintained.

As in Chekhov, Elyot puts the audience through the exquisite pain of watching his characters desperately trying to find love but being unwittingly rebuffed or misunderstood while also making them multi-faceted and surprising at every turn, six excellent characters that the exceptional cast mine for every inch of surface wit and sub-textual pain.

Excellent performances abound from Julian Ovenden as John, the golden boy who doesn't have to try too hard for whatever he wants; Geoffrey Streatfeild as the flamboyantly outrageous art dealer Geoffrey; Lewis Reeves as the tantalisingly young but surprisingly moral Eric and the double act of Richard Cant and Matt Bardock as the couple Bernie and Benny, whose every conversation ends in a skirmish.

If I don't include Jonathan Broadbent as the lovelorn Guy in that line-up it's because he was the one who ultimately failed to erase memories of the original cast member but then again, David Bamber was unforgettable.  Broadbent slightly overdoes a Harry Potter-ish schtick which fails to match Bamber who played the role with no concessions to audience sympathy but won it nevertheless.  Broadbent was certainly effective in his scenes of desperation as his unattainable object of desire confided in him of his own sex life.

Robert Hastie's excellently subtle direction draws you slowly into the devastating fall-out of the friends' lives and judges the pace beautifully, almost situation-comedy moments suddenly giving way to moments of aching pathos and unwitting cruelty.

Peter McKintosh's design and the always-admirable Paul Pyant's lighting give the production a solid unity that supports the play well.

I had forgotten how skilfully Kevin Elyot plays with time through the course of REG and seeing it again made me want to experience the memory plays that he wrote after it: THE DAY I STOOD STILL (1998) and MOUTH TO MOUTH (2001).

Robert Hastie's Donmar production of MY NIGHT WITH REG is a fitting tribute to this under-rated and sadly-missed writer.

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