Occasionally, watching a play, a swell of something catches me in a very personal way. It doesn’t happen that often and it’s a mystery. It’s like catching the biggest wave, exhilarating, heart-pounding, addictive. Two thirds into My Night With Reg, it happened. It wasn’t when the play was at its saddest, or at its funniest for thar matter. It was when defences were down, boundaries were blurring, longing and lust and friendship and regrets started pressing upon each other and you can’t catch your breath for chasing them.
Twenty years after it was first performed, My Night With Reg doesn’t feel like a play about AIDS. That is not to say it tries to hide it. Quite the opposite. There is a chilling casualness in the way AIDS runs through the story. It is what it is, nothing less, nothing more. But much of the play is about the moment you let slip and can’t get back, the casual betrayal you regret and can’t fix, the little hurts we inflict, love not returned and not expressed. Kevin Elyot’s play is relentless and tender and funny but it’s also tricksy. In fact, it has naughtiness in its (structural) heart: I won’t spoil it but things take a certain turn long before the audience realises. Its breeziness hides bravado and the bravado hides sorrows. Despite its drawing room conventions, it can throw you to the rocks any time.
A terrific cast delivers the characters fully formed and sharp in their complexity. (How does that happen? Why aren’t we in complete awe when writing and directing and acting come together to deliver a fully fledged human being?). Julian Ovenden’s John has the generous confident charm of the lucky and privileged, but now is startled to find he needs something he can’t have. His cool exterior bellies a tremor in his heart, where need and betrayal are eating on his defences. Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Daniel has what he needs but carries the knowledge of loss with him. He is warmly exuberant, with a touch of the outrageous, but alert to the complexities of life: he is happy with a tinge of sadness and sad with a habitual twinkle he can’t suppress. John’s and Daniel’s friendship is the axis around which the story revolves: a lifetime of the right moments and a smattering of the wrong ones, the relationship is simultaneously robust and fragile and defiant.
Jonathan Broadbent’s Guy is the best friend you could ever have, open and comforting and inviting, although never ordinary: his kindness is extraordinary and Broadbent still suggests the possibility of a leap that never materialises. Richard Cant’s Bernie is truly the most boring man in the universe but Cant makes him affecting and funny and gives him a dignity that challenges preconceptions. Matt Bardock’s Bennie has a refreshing straightforwardness and a macho kind of empathy: after all, some times, there is nothing more consoling than a good shag. Lewis Reeves’s Eric is instinctively, unthinkingly wise – the way only the young can be. His easy warmth and open-hearted charm catch you off-guard.
The production, directed by Robert Hastie, is effortlessly evocative: the muggy summer rains and the smell of wet grass; the dawn that finds you in funeral gear, skin smelling of brandy and sex, screaming (a song?) at the top of your voice; vinyl records, tactile and fragile; playful looks and intimate whispers. The period detail, while vivid, is never nostalgic. The music (David Bowie and Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto among other things) carries the DNA of everyone’s glorious mischievous youth. Peter McKintosh’s design is unfussy and captures Guy’s personality: the openness and warmth and detail.
In the end, there are very few things you need to know in this life: we are all going to die; love each other and be naughty. Did Reg, who we never meet but somehow get to know, have the right idea? Excuse me while I play David Bowie’s Starman on a loop, after all Ziggy Stardust has all the answers.
P.S. In the Independent, Matt Cain wonders how the play will be received 20 years on. It’s an interesting read, especially as he feels more pessimistic about the characters than I do.
Update 25/8/2014: I revisited my thougts on play and production, you can read them here.