THEATRE / Those undercover blues: Paul Taylor reviews Kevin Elyot's My Night with Reg at the Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court

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The 'two widows syndrome' - caused when someone dies leaving behind both the spouse and a clandestine, long-standing lover who has no rights and must, by definition, grieve in secret - is difficult enough at the best of times. But imagine how much worse it would be if the two survivors were gay men, big mates since university days a decade ago back, and if the joint object of their affections had just died of Aids. Add to the painful complications of that, the fact that their other great college chum, in whom both confide, had been mutely besotted with the undercover widower from when he first met him as an undergraduate. He's as unable, though, to reveal this to the now worn-looking Adonis as the latter is to come clean (to anyone but him) about the affair with the deceased.

Painfully undisclosed emotion, played off against a tragi-farcical flurry of sexual revelations, is at the heart of My Night with Reg, Kevin Elyot's sharply witty and humanely wise drama about gay manners and morals in the age of Aids. It's brought to life now in a staging by Roger Michell in the Theatre Upstairs. For across-the-board authenticity and for the apparently effortless way the cast manage to sustain the play's shifting tragi-comic textures, it must be judged the best acted production now on in London.

At the Donmar Warehouse, Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing is currently tracing the start of a contemporary gay romance between two working-class teenagers with an affecting, if distinctly willed optimism, instanced by the fact that it has to go back to 1969 for its upbeat theme song. Applied to the thirtysomethings in Elyot's play, though, Mamma Cass's version of 'It's Getting Better' could function only as a decidedly sick joke.

Things get very much worse, scene by the scene, and not just because it gradually emerges that Reg has claims to have been the most sexually active off-stage character in the whole of modern drama.

The fineness of the play can be seen in the way Elyot has edited the story, although I'm aware that the time jumps which seem so expressive to me may irritate some people. They allow Elyot to leave out all the physical mess and suffering of Aids and to concentrate, at each stage, on the emotional fall-out of the latest death.

The play begins at the flat-warming being thrown by Guy, the much-confided-in friend. A lovelorn Plain Jane, he's the one who, at an orgy, would be out in the kitchen whipping up an avocado mousse and planning the post- coital finger buffet. All folded arms, nervous head-tosses and 'not-for-me' hand over wineglass, David Bamber brilliantly shows you how much it hurts this kind man that, although everyone wants to bend his ear, they have no great designs on the rest of his body.

The first scene also introduces the first men who will later become widowers: Anthony Calf's excellent John, known at university as the 'flying fuck of the First XV', a golden youth now looking a little tarnished and unsettled, as he squanders the family fortune; and art-dealing Daniel, who is played by John Sessions as a sort of hyper, camped-up version of himself, compulsively performing (he calls himself 'Monica Monogamy'). The second scene tricks you into thinking it's a continuation of the first, whereas, when you get your bearings, you realise you're at the wake for Reg. Heart-wrenchingly, a similar ploy is used in the next transition, though it wouldn't be fair to reveal who has died in the interim.

Beautifully observed and almost over-artfully patterned, the play is never didactic but offers some submerged warnings. Through the two widowers, it shows how relatively (not to say, fatally) easy it is for a gay man to anaesthetise heartache in promiscuous sex. Calf's John, grieving and quietly more and more appalled by his inner emptiness, actually manages to make you pity him his dazzling looks. Neither man has changed his lifestyle by the end, but, implicitly at least, Reg is a million miles from an early Aids play like Hoffman's As Is, where the characters waxed nostalgic about the days of mindless orgy in the bath- house, a state to which (in evidently author-approved fashion) they would revert instantly if a cure were found.

I'm not sure I quite believed that the Sessions figure would ever have been capable of monogomous devotion (though I had no difficulty in believing the depth of John's love) and I found Eric, the guileless, down to earth young Northerner (superbly played by Joe Duttine) rather less attractive than I think I was meant to as a representative of a generation that can think with its honest heart as well as its rampant penis. In most other respects, though, first-rate.

'My Night with Reg' continues at the Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court, London SW1 (Booking: 071-730 1745)

(Photograph omitted)