THEATRE / Missing, presumed promiscuous

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The Independent Culture
IN THE DAYS before it became an official issue, stage homosexuality was a reliable source of comedy. There was plenty to object to in its limp-wristed stereotypes, but even they had a wit and lightness of touch seldom to be found elsewhere. Homosexuality was a forcing-house of irony; the traditional weapon of the weak against the strong. Then came the Gay Pride movement, followed by Aids, and homosexual drama went serious: rather like Yiddish comedy evaporating in the deserts of Israel.

One reason for welcoming Kevin Elyot's award-winning My Night With Reg is that it succeeds - if I may venture a limp-wristed term - in having it both ways. This is a sad, bleak piece about unrequited affection, the transitoriness of youth, and the ever-present threat of death. At the same time, it bubbles over with camp merriment, beautifully plotted absurdities, and verbal acrobatics. It has been claimed in the piece's defence that it could translate into heterosexual terms. I disagree. What illuminates it most is an emotional candour and volatility that belongs to a world of outsiders who are making up the rules as they go along.

The title character, who never appears and whose death is reported after the first scene, is an erotically irresistible presence who wreaks havoc on the relationships of the characters who do appear. These revolve around the wan figure of Guy - pushing 40 and still looking for love - who keeps open house to a group of sexually hyperactive friends. Marvellously played by David Bamber, Guy begins as a standard example of the old-style maiden gentleman: a skilled cook and fussy householder who even has a decorative cover for his draught excluder. He is clearly put out when his first visitor, John, wants to smoke, even though he has been carrying a torch for this former student chum during the nine years since they last met. They are joined by the boisterous Dan (John Sessions) who turns the meeting into a party, with toasts to ''Gross indecency'' - not realising that Reg, his lover, has just spent the night with John. At this point, we seem all set for a jolly comedy of intrigue.

That it develops into much more is largely thanks to Elyot's handling of stage time. In Roger Michell's production, the scenes are punctuated with brief blackouts and played without an interval. This leads you to expect continuity of action; it comes as a shock to realise that every scene break represents the passage of a significant length of time during which something decidedly unfunny has happened. Each fatality is referred to obliquely, as though we already know about it. The party reassembles in sombre mood - it is some time before we realise that they are returning from Reg's funeral. Their main question is how to break the news to the grieving Dan that his dead lover had interests elsewhere. ''Even the vicar at the crematorium,'' someone finally blurts out, ''said he was a good fuck''. That transgresses all the rules of good taste and consideration; but it blows the roof off the theatre as only a truthful comic line can.

The other effect of the scene-breaks is to telescope the characters' transition into middle age. The actual duration of events is not specified, but the psychological clock is ticking away like a time-bomb. Guy, apparently the central figure, is struck down without warning before the last scene, leaving his flat to the beloved John. Your mind goes back to the first sight of John (Anthony Calf) as a forelock-tossing golden boy, and compares that with the hunched figure in an overcoat vainly trying to make it with the friendly but pitying Eric (Joe Duttine) who really is young.

In the present epidemic of regional theatre closures (Salisbury Playhouse, Farnham Redgrave et al), I learn that Guildford's Yvonne Arnaud Theatre - in spite of having transferred four shows to the West End in the past year - will close unless new funds are found before next May.

The Redgrave, meanwhile, is proclaiming its defiant vitality with Roland Jaquarello's production of George Dandin, the bleakest of all Moliere's comedies. George, a rich yeoman, has married into the nobility, only to be treated like dirt by his in-laws and cheated by his wife. He spends much of the time moaning to the audience, and it is easy to imagine an alternative play from the viewpoint of young Angelique, who was not consulted over the marriage. But, really, there is nobody to sympathise with. Jaquarello's production works because - beyond its farcical invention - it seizes the two big opportunities of leaving farce behind. First it allows Angelique

(Camilla Vella) to offer George a new deal as if she really means it; then it impels George (Nick Lucas) over the edge into a world of Strindbergian frenzy. ''Grant me the blessing of letting others see how dishonoured I am!''. There is a kamikaze prayer, a warning to all dissatisfied partners.

Not that it would be of any help to the partners in Harold Pinter's Landscape who have become so inured to living parallel lives that they speak in monologues, hardly acknowledging the other's presence. In the original RSC production (l969) their separation was symbolised by a jagged split in the stage floor which converted the kitchen set into two separate islands. In Pinter's revival, the kitchen (designed by Eileen Diss) has become a monochrome unit, and the relationship has altered accordingly. What we see now is a man (Ian Holm) trying with increasing desparation to get through to a woman (Penelope Wilton) who is too lost in her reveries to notice him. The acting is superlative. In general terms what it offers is a dialogue between romantic memory and present triviality. Both are driven equally by passion, and expressed through minutely considered patterns of recurring detail - such as Wilton's instantly suppressed smile whenever she mentions children, or Holm's shamefaced retreats into solitude every time she ignores him. The bond between them is almost visible; and a life-time's regret is packed into the play's 35 minutes.

Out of the Blue is a melodramatically plotted Anglo-Japanese musical tracing the aftermath of a wartime marriage 25 years after the bombing of Nagasaki. There are some powerful voices (Michael McCarthy, Meredith Braun) in David Gilmore's production. Paul Sand's libretto sacrifices sense to prolonged rhyming; Shun-Ichi Tokura's score functions more as atmospheric lighting than as music with any independent dramatic purpose. With such an anatomy there is small advantage in having the heart in the right place.

- 'My Night With Reg': Criterion, 071-839 4488. 'George Dandin': Redgrave, Farnham, 0252 715301. 'Landscape': Cottesloe, 071-928 2252. 'Out of the Blue': Shaftesbury, 071-379 5399.