REVIEW: My Night With Reg, Donmar Warehouse ✭✭✭✭✭

Reg

My Night With Reg
Donmar Warehouse
19 August 2014
5 Stars
Transferred to Apollo Theatre Jan 2015

It's that late part of the night, moonlight has gone and Dawn is just opening an eye. Everything is still. A young man, buck naked, is languidly leaning against the doors to a conservatory, looking out into the garden. Classical music is playing. He seems the personification of the beauty of hope. Another naked man enters, tousled hair indicating that just-out-of-bed sense. He turns off the music, asks why the other, younger man, has got out of bed. He apologises for his lack of sexual capacity earlier but the young man shrugs.

“I didn't want to anyway” he says. “Why not?” the older one asks, slightly indignant.

“I'd have felt guilty, wouldn't I?” A beat. “Cup of tea?”

That brief, haunting, and quite beautiful scene articulates many of the themes and issues which Kevin Elyot weaves through his seminal play, My Night With Reg, now being revived, for the first time since it's premiere at the Royal Court twenty years ago, at the Donmar Warehouse.

Directed beautifully by Robert Hastie, the production is exquisite in almost every way. Time has not wearied the power or interest of Elyot's carefully crafted and plotted play, nor dulled the incisive clarity the play brings to questions of love, lust, friendship, deception and, especially, choice and consequence. It's still funny, sexy and shattering; but the passage of time has heightened, rather than diminished, the perception of the five characters whose tale unfolds in intricate, inter-locking detail, all in the shadow of the omni-present but unseen Reg.

Set in a period well before mobile tablets, social media hook-up sites and check-ins on Facebook which chart one's movements, this is a time where landlines are the main form of communication across distances, where friendships are less ephemeral than they are in the second decade of the 21st Century and depend more on shared experiences and long histories, where the constant threat of death from AIDS is stamped indelibly on the minds of every sexually active gay man. A time of dinner parties, conversation, drunken disclosures and increasingly complicated deceptions and secrecy.

It would be easy to dismiss this play as “an AIDS play” but it is nothing of the kind. It’s a play about relationships; a comedy about sexual politics, social pressures and norms, with a dark and savage underbelly. It’s poetic and achingly sad in some moments, stupidly silly in others. But it has a resonant and vibrant pulse which throbs louder and truer now than it did when the play first premiered.

The intimate space of the Donmar helps immeasurably with this. So too does the splendid set from Peter McKintosh: part of the lounge and conservatory of Guy’s new flat, where everything is “just-so”, reflecting the geeky, precise and slightly OCD behaviour of Guy himself. The set and the space make the audience almost part of the action, which centres around various gatherings in Guy’s home.

The cast is marvellous.

The stand-out performance comes from Lewis Reeves as Eric, the young impressionable lad from Birmingham who is not part of the group of friends when the play starts but who, by its end, has become one of them and started to take on some of their foibles and failings. It’s a beautiful and subtle performance, full of genuine heart and a slow, burning awakening to the realities of life. It would be easy to play this role as a golden youth with little to offer but his body and looks, but Reeves makes Eric spectacularly real and beguilingly arresting.

Eric has to fend off two unwelcome sexual advances, and Reeves handles both differently. His rejection of Guy is kind, poignant, completely summing up Guy’s own fears and insecurities. His rejection of John, on the other hand, is slightly callous, forcing John to face a fact that he does not want to face: that he is ageing and he can’t always get what he wants.

Julian Ovenden is excellent as the floundering John. Once Apollo and never blemished by the need to work (family money), John is the epitome of fading beauty. He is still very attractive but the lustre is gone, replaced by hollowness and a refusal to face facts. He betrays his oldest friend, the man he probably loves but won’t admit to loving, and then throws away the chance to make amends. John’s is a dark and odd journey but Ovenden ensures that it is always interesting. He is compelling, especially in his critical scenes with Reeves.

It is extremely difficult to play a boring person on stage, at least in a way which is realistic. It’s even harder when the character in question is part of a close group of friends all of whom think he is boring. Richard Cant, however, has no difficulty. His boring Bernie is sheer delight. It’s a very fine and touching performance, superb in every way.

As his partner, the randy, extremely well-endowed Benny, Matt Bardock is also excellent. The chalk to Bernie's cheese; chalk that will scribble anywhere, anytime. So perfect is the playing of this difficult relationship that when Reeves' Eric comes later to talk about their lives once they have parted, the sense of unavoidable grimness is palpable. This is a couple together in fear: Bernie hates Benny's infidelity but fears that he will be alone if he confronts it and throws Benny out; Benny's fear is that he will be a complacent “housewife” if he doesn't cat around. Separated, inevitably, after Bernie does throw Benny out, both see their fears come true. Benny becomes what Bernie always wanted him to be – but with someone else. The complexity – and real sadness – of their relationship provides a wonderful counterpoint to the lives of their friends. They are a different kind of lost opportunity.

They are also very funny. Especially good was the touch that saw them dress and look like each other – the notion of a couple growing together over time to look alike. And, like most of the humour here, it results in a chilling awfulness when the laughter stops.

Geoffrey Stretfeild is marvellous as the dapper, effeminate Daniel, Reg's partner but John's other half. Tellingly, Guy remarks at one point that they both had to have whomsoever the other had had at a University, a pattern which pursues them into adulthood and brings misery to both. The road not taken, accentuating every aspect of their lives.

Stretfeild flaps his hands, minces, squirms, winks, leers and cha-chas through the emotional minefield that is Daniel's life, giving vivid life to an extreme, but nevertheless, quite real person. He is surprisingly convincing for a strapping actor with Macbeth and Hal under his belt.

As Guy, Jonathan Broadbent is the quintessential good guy, the one everyone openly marvels at because he is partner-less but privately would never consider as a potential lover. Fastidious and loyal, Guy knows everything; he can be trusted with secrets. He also has his own secret, his adoration for John, a secret he keeps and which, together with his fear of AIDS, ravages his life. Broadbent makes Guy completely believable, everyone's pal. There are no tricks, just a true through-line for a complex, frustrated man. One quibble: his sit-com goggle-eyed spectacles detract from, rather than enhance, his deft acting and, in odd moments, he swishes for no reason; but these are small matters.

Perhaps Hastie's greatest achievement with this cast is the joint sense of friendship they exude. In the first scene, Reeves is the outsider, but the connection between the others is crystal clear, as if you had seen them as friends for a decade. You feel Reeves' character marvelling at them, wondering what it would be like to have friends like that. No matter what betrayals, scandals, intrigue or sorrow rains down, that bond remains undisturbed.

Which makes Reeves' assimilation into the group all the more delightful and the final confrontation between John and Daniel, where each has the chance to be honest and neither chooses that option, confronting and full of despair.

Reg is never seen on stage, but he is a mighty presence. Elyot, who died only recently, might not have written this play in any autobiographical sense, but like Reg, his presence is everywhere as the production plays out.

In the programme, Alan Hollinghurst puts his legacy perfectly:

“He was a tight plotter who wasted nothing and had a proper respect for coincidence, which he used sparingly but pointedly in everything he wrote. In his comedies of sexual and social manners, with their wonderfully outrageous and authentic dialogue, every detail none the less counts, and takes its place in the pattern, though the pattern itself may not become clear until the very last moments of the play. Their distinctive poetry lies in the glimpsed symmetries and secret harmonies that are revealed within and around the confused and sometimes cruelly shortened lives of his characters.”

Hollinghurst is spot on and Hastie's glorious production shows you why.

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