Twenty years ago I had the great privilege of co-producing the original Sydney production of Kevin Elyot’s Olivier Award-winning play My Night With Reg, in which I also played the role of Daniel.
Directed by Tony Knight, the production, which played at the Newtown Theatre during Mardi Gras 19998, also featured Steven Tandy, Graham Harvey, Anthony Phelan, Jonathan Mill and Sean Hall.
Reg was originally produced by the Royal Court Theatre in London and staged in their small, upstairs theatre, in March 1994. The production was an enormous success and transferred firstly to the Criterion Theatre in the West End in November 1994 and then to Playhouse Theatre in June 1995, picking up several prestigious awards along the way, including the Olivier for Best New Comedy in 1995.
The BBC made a television film of it in 1996 which was broadcast thorough Great Britain in prime time twice within six months.
I have always had a soft spot for Mr Elyot’s brilliantly clever, uproariously funny and ultimately extremely moving story revolving around a group of gay male friends in London in the mid-to-late ’80s.
A couple of months ago I was approached by my friend and colleague Alice Livingston, with whom I appeared in New Theatre’s August Osage County last winter.
Alice is directing the first production of the play in Sydney since ours of yesteryear for New Theatre as a part of the 2019 Mardi Gras Festival. Given my history and knowledge of this marvellous play from both a producers and an actors perspective (Alice had seen our 1998 production), she very kindly invited me to take the journey with her as her assistant director … an opportunity I simply couldn’t resist.
The play is is set in London and takes place in the new flat of one of a group of six gay, male friends.
It begins with a flat warming party and spans a four-year period from 1984 – 89. The flat warming also serves a reunion, of sorts, of the three main characters who, now in their 30s, haven’t really seen a great deal of each other in the decade since their university days.
While the play is basically a farce, it takes place against the background of the rapidly escalating AIDS crisis. The (unseen) character of Reg is the long term lover of one of the group, and is having a clandestine affair with another member of the group. He has also been to bed with at least two more group members. He is the catalyst for the underlying drama and when he succumbs to the virus, the cat is most definitely set loose in the pigeon coup.
Having said that, this it is far from being an “AIDS play”.
In fact the word is never mentioned. Rather, it investigates the issues of unrequited love and betrayal as well as loyalty and trust between friends and the unequal qualities of desire. All of these are hardly the preserve of gay men. Mr Elyot makes it crystal clear that these issues are universal no matter what one’s sexual identity.
One of the things I find fascinating about revisiting this piece after 20 years (albeit from a different perspective) is the difference in attitude to material of this nature.
In the progressive times in which we live some people may consider the play to be “old fashioned”, but I disagree.
Rather, I consider it to be historical in that it speaks of a time before the existence of social media when it was far easier to live a “secret” life, to conduct clandestine affairs and to keep things from others.
It was also a time well before the development of revolutionary medical treatments for HIV and preventative medicines like PreP, all of which have radically changed the way in which the gay community today see their place in society and live their lives.
To me, this play is not only a brilliantly constructed, character based comedy, which is also deeply moving, but it also serves as a reminder to all of us just how different and terrifying the world was for homosexual men at the time.
In the words of Dominic Cavendish, in his review in London’s The Telegraph of the 2015 West End revival (a transfer of the Donmar Warehouse production to the Apollo Theatre):
My Night with Reg is the most artificial and the truest, the funniest and most searing play to be found anywhere on the London stage. It matters absolutely that all the characters in it are gay, and it matters not a jot.