There’s a definite tinge of sadness about Kevin Elyot’s My Night With Reg even before the play starts as the playwright died this summer aged 62, just as rehearsals for this Donmar Warehouse production – the play’s first major revival – were to start. It is also a deeply melancholy piece of work, elegantly capturing the yearning ache of unrequited love, the pain of remembering those who’ve been loved and lost, and the vast complexity that can arise from simply wanting to be loved.
The play could be pigeon-holed as a gay play, an AIDS play, an 80s period piece, but the beauty of Robert Hastie’s production is that it transcends all these labels, elevating Elyot’s writing to a minor-key classic. That the play focuses on a group of gay friends throughout the 80s living under the (never-mentioned) shadow of HIV/AIDS is never in doubt but the main theme, the driving force behind so much of what – the fear of ending up alone – is utterly, completely universal.
Elyot stretches his narrative over 4 years and 3 key events in the lives of old long-lost university friends Guy, Daniel and John and their close circle of friends. Reunited at first at a flat-warming for Guy, there’s a gloriously funny air to proceedings as they rehash old rituals and memories – has David Bowie’s Starman ever seemed so gorgeous? But the mood soon shifts as secrets start to tumble out – the long-held flames, the torrid affairs, the soul-crushing desolation.
The casting here is simply impeccable. Jonathan Broadbent’s Guy is almost unbearably touching, fastidiously careful but longing to be carefree in the arms of the only man he has ever loved; Julian Ovenden’s John so fully at ease with his handsome sexuality but increasingly unable to mask the fact it is hiding a deep emptiness within; and Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Daniel is nothing but a tour-de-force, a whirlwind of genial campery who is devastatingly hollowed out by grief later on.
Elyot’s caustic wit is present throughout and there’s something deeply moving in the way the play is structured – the leaps in time aren’t always completely obvious, the realisation of when we are and what has happened thus hitting even harder at the a-ha moment, Hastie’s work here is remarkable in translating the writing in such a profoundly effective way. Richard Cant and a cocksure Matt Bardock are great as a bickering couple on the fringes of the group and Lewis Reeves’ young Brummie Eric provides generational contrast, further highlighting the genuine tragedy that befell these, and so many other men.