In addition to bagging both the Olivier and the Evening Standard awards for Best Comedy, Kevin Elyot's My Night With Reg won him the 1994 Critics' Circle Award for Most Promising Newcomer. With his new play The Day I Stood Still beginning previews tomorrow at the National Theatre, Elyot is hardly about to start carping, but it must have rankled. "Most Promising Newcomer"? Twelve years earlier, he had waltzed off with the Samuel Beckett Award for his debut play, Coming Clean, at the Bush theatre. In 1990, his TV drama Killing Time had nabbed the Writers' Guild Award. And, in 1992, he had adapted Ostrovsky's Artists and Admirers for Phyllida Lloyd at the RSC.
None of these successes spelt an end to his day (and night) job, however. Since leaving Bristol University drama department in 1973, Elyot has maintained a steady career as an actor, tackling everything from West End roles to Edward Bond's Stone, one of the earliest plays commissioned by the now- defunct Gay Sweatshop. Indeed, calmly nibbling a cake in the National Theatre cafe, he points out that, while he hasn't acted for five years, he still hasn't entirely given up on it.
"If something came along, I might consider it," he opines, mock-loftily. "A nice cameo on camera."
Mind you, the thought of a stage role makes him shudder. Quite apart from the strain of rehearsals and eight shows a week, having now sat in the saddle, he's not anxious to relinquish the reins.
"As a writer, in the theatre at least, you get treated better. I do think that being an actor can be slightly degrading. You have to be rather craven. I hate all that. As a writer, you have more control, you're in charge of the goods."
Elyot has been hedging his bets since his days at King Edward's School in Birmingham. He studied piano to grade 8, was a choirboy for years and, thanks to an enlightened teacher, was very involved in drama and wrote all manner of things. But acting was his major interest.
"My Desdemona..." he breathes. "You could've heard a pin drop when I sang the `Willow Song'. Actually, even then I had very dark eyebrows and I wore a long, blonde wig. I looked hideous."
To this day he is amazed that, at a school where academic accomplishment or sporting prowess were the criteria of excellence, his dramatic endeavours alone elevated him to the status of prefect.
It was not a role he relished. Guarded and softly spoken, he has never regarded himself as a clubbable type, although merely being a sixth-former granted him entree to something called the Cartland Club ("as in Barbara," he quips), a room all set about with leather armchairs, which he barely visited. The prefects, too, had their own room but he never went in. It set a pattern for the rest of his life. As a writer, he sees himself as out on a limb.
"I'm very happy about it. I'm not even part of any particular generation. I'm 46 and obviously not one of the up-and-coming young Turks. I'm certainly not like Stoppard and his generation, who have been megastars for decades, so I really feel outside all that and very liberated by it. I can plough my own furrow."
When Reg arrived in the West End, one or two commentators pigeon-holed it as part of the wave of gay plays. Elyot is uncomfortable with that too, which might lead one to accuse him of clinging to Groucho Marx's line, "I don't want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member." But he is not alone. Most gay writers dislike being marginalised. "Of course I am a writer and I am gay, but that kind of characterisation is a way of belittling the writing. You're kind of brushed aside, so that the discussion can then move on to `serious' writing. But recently I found I'm not being called a gay writer and I quite like that, not because I have any problem with being gay, but because I just want to be judged along with everyone else."
If people were to categorise "straight writers" in similarly exclusive terms, it might be different. But, either way, Elyot sees it as a dead end.
"I think I've got almost nothing in common with other gay writers other than orientation. Jonathan Harvey, for example, is of a different generation and pursues his own ideas - no better, no worse, just different."
A play about secrets and lies, Reg wrought considerable laughter and pain from Elyot's trademark tragi-comic writing about love and particularly sex. "Sex is great, but I suppose I always think there's something faintly ludicrous about it," he muses drolly. "That men have a penis that they might not have any control over ..."
Unexpectedly, the loudest criticism came from tetchier sections of the gay press, who harangued him for penning a supposed "Aids play" that demoted the disease to the background. "It's not `about Aids'. I can't do that sort of writing." He tried it once. Beneath the spectre of the notorious Clause 28, he wrote Consent for Queen Mary's College in Basingstoke. It was a notably dangerous exercise, given that the 16-year-old actors were technically under-age, but he was unhappy writing an issue play in workshop. The result was certainly far removed from Reg, an elegant comedy of manners and mortality whose title alludes to Eric Rohmer's cinematic conversation piece, Ma Nuit chez Maude.
The Day I Stood Still is an equally finely crafted chamber piece, held together by a structure playing games with time. Past and present are held up for inspection as Horace, the central character, faces up to a hidden passion. Not a million miles away from the central dilemma of Reg, it's a subject that fascinates Elyot. "You could make the mistake of thinking my stuff is autobiographical. It is a bit, but not totally. I've never written about the first person I fell in love with. In fact, I had lunch with him a couple of months ago. He's happily married with children, a terribly nice man. Do you know, when we met up, he'd just been to make a donation to a sperm bank."
Nevertheless, Elyot constantly returns to the lasting quality of early experiences. "There are lots of things I thought when I was a teenager and, at the time, I remember thinking, `When I'm older, they'll change.' Thirty years on, you realise you're on exactly the same track. Of course your opinions change, but the gut thing lasts, the pattern is set. In The Day I Stood Still, tiny trivial events later assume massive importance. That's part of the same thing."
Although his writing has advanced pretty smoothly, there have been disappointments. He was very unhappy with the finished version of his BBC adaptation of Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone, the victim of endless budget cuts which continued right through production; his relationship with the producers and director fell apart. "I had cut scenes fairly fast but they ended up being given an unnecessary beginning and end. A rather paranoid, strange book became a lumbering period piece," he remarks, evenly.
An even greater disappointment was the shelving of his adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst's The Swimming Pool Library. "Regardless of the quality of my adaptation, the project was hot to trot. It was 1994, Alan was up for the Booker with The Folding Star, Reg was beginning to happen and it was such an audacious, celebrated book."
He believes it was a failure of nerve on the part of the BBC. "Naively, I'm still quite optimistic that, somewhere, sometime, it might still happen." Meanwhile, he's busy adapting Maupassant's Bel-Ami for film and about to nip off to Australia for yet another production of Reg (already seen as far afield as Japan, Mexico and Slovenia).
Not that he'll be interfering. "You can't nanny it along, you have to let them discover it for themselves." That's the actor talking. The distinguishing mark of his plays is his rare confidence in leaving things unsaid, allowing the actors to finish the thoughts. Not only is that more satisfying to act, it releases an audience's imagination, pulls them closer to the play's heart. No prizes, then, for guessing that he venerates Chekhov. He even went as far as writing a deeply private homage to Three Sisters, beguilingly entitled Paint Your Troika.
"It was a one-off performance and I was the only person allowed to watch it," he hastens to add. "The late Peter Whitman was Olga, whose character was visited by the ghosts of Bette Davies and Carol Channing. There was going to be a follow-up called The House of Bernarda Duckworth, but somehow I never got round to that... but I might," he threatens. "Though you've got to be in it to see it."
`The Day I Stood Still' previews at the Cottesloe, RNT, South Bank, London SE1, from tomorrow, and opens on 22 Jan. Booking: 0171-928 2252Reuse content