It’s an uproariously funny drawing-room comedy in the tradition of Noël Coward and Oscar Wilde – except that all the characters are gay. In 1994, Kevin Elyot’s play My Night with Reg opened to critical raves hailing it as a landmark gay drama, and a revival, opening this week, is set to make it the talk of theatreland all over again. But how will it be received, two decades on?
My Night with Reg tells the story of a group of friends who meet at copywriter Guy’s flat in London on three separate occasions during the mid-to-late 1980s. It gradually emerges that all of them, apart from Guy, have slept with the character Reg, who himself never appears on stage. When the enigmatic philanderer dies of Aids – a disease which is never named but is clearly identifiable – the others worry that they too may be infected and emotions begin to unravel.
When it opened at London’s Royal Court Theatre, My Night with Reg was a huge success, transferring to the West End and winning a clutch of awards. It had a major impact on audiences, both gay and straight; at the time it was still a rarity to find three-dimensional representations of gay characters on stage, particularly ones who weren’t struggling to accept their sexuality.
Of course, 20 years later, it’s fashionable to object to the classification of this or any other piece of theatre as a “gay play”. But for me at least, My Night with Reg IS a gay play. It might not contain any discussion of homosexuality in itself, but its gay characters behave in a way that an otherwise similar group of straight people wouldn’t. That’s not to say it has an appeal that’s limited to gay audiences; on the contrary, it’s a beautifully constructed exploration of friendship, infidelity and the cost of lying, not to mention a gut-wrenchingly moving look at the loneliness of unrequited love.
It’s perhaps because there’d been so few plays representing gay life before My Night with Reg that it was widely regarded as a “gay play” when it first opened. Mart Crowley’s Boys in the Band had caused a stir off-Broadway in 1968, Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing had been a huge success in London in 1993 and there had also been two stridently political plays about the Aids crisis: Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. What was interesting about My Night With Reg was that it, too, dealt with Aids but, other than making the point that the disease strikes indiscriminately, it wasn’t political in the slightest; it was, and still is, a very human drama.
In fact, it’s clear after re-reading the play in 2014, that Elyot didn’t set out to provide any kind of definitive overview of gay life. Any work trying to do that is always going to run into trouble, as Elyot himself found with his 2007 TV drama Clapham Junction, which documented 36 hours in the lives of several gay men from diverse backgrounds, but which some critics thought was relentlessly pessimistic, and many gay viewers felt didn’t reflect their own experience. But the truth is that a play depicting a minority population unfamiliar to certain members of the public is inevitably going to shape their attitudes towards that social group. And much of the initial success of My Night with Reg was down to the fact that it opened up the lives of gay characters at a point when British society was beginning to emerge from the hysteria surrounding the Aids crisis and mainstream audiences were ready to take a look.
What they found was a depiction of gay life written without any attempt to clean it up for straight viewers. On the surface, the characters in the play are loving and affectionate towards each other, but before long it becomes clear that much of their sexual activity involves either cheating on a boyfriend or betraying a friend. Five of them are sexually attracted to a man who can only be bad for them, and one of these goes cruising for sex on Hampstead Heath just hours after attending a close friend’s funeral. Considering that many people at the time still blamed gay men for spreading Aids through their reckless approach to casual sex, the honesty with which Elyot wrote My Night with Reg was very brave.
Not only was it brave but, like another landmark gay drama a few years later, the TV series Queer as Folk, it prompted many gay men to face up to certain facts about our collective experience. Over the past 20 years we’ve become much better at acknowledging the higher incidence of dangerous sex, drug use, and generally self-destructive behaviour in our community, and exploring the possible reasons behind this. In his influential self-help manual The Velvet Rage, Dr Alan Downs suggests that self-loathing and internalised homophobia among gay men is the logical response to growing up in a world that tells us that being gay is disgusting – and that we’re disgusting. I can’t help wondering that if Elyot were writing Reg in 2014 he might have worked an awareness of this into his play, and given us glimpses into the backstories that motivate some of his characters’ actions.
I also can’t help wondering if he would have infused the play with more hope. Guy is the most self-loving and self-respecting of his characters but he’s sexually shunned by the others, including the man he’s secretly in love with, and isn’t rewarded with any kind of happiness by the narrative. In fact, there isn’t much redemption for any of the characters at the end of the play. Bearing in mind that since it was first performed the position of gay men in British society has improved immeasurably, I worry that this might now seem unnecessarily bleak.
But I’m looking forward to seeing how challenges like these are tackled in the new revival. Tragically, Elyot died two weeks before rehearsals started but he did have the chance to rewrite his text and decided to leave it as a period piece. I know that director Robert Hastie and some of his cast have been reading The Velvet Rage – and I’ll be interested to see how an increased awareness of the psychology of the gay experience informs their interpretation of the play.
Matt Cain is the former Culture Editor of Channel 4 News. His debut novel, ‘Shot Through the Heart’, is published by Pan Macmillan. ‘My Night with Reg’ runs at the Donmar Warehouse (0844 871 7624 donmarwarehouse.com) until 27 SeptReuse content