I went up to London yesterday for a matinee production of Kevin Elyot's award-winning play 'My Night with Reg'. This current production marks the anniversary of the first production, The Royal Court Theater, Sloane Square, and originated at The Donmar, before being transferred to the West End, at the Apollo, Shaftesbury Avenue.
I have to confess that this was my first visit to a West End Theatre. The Apollo is a small theatre, the auditorium a wonderful confection of the Edwardian rocaille - 1900 by Lewen Sharp, who is an architect I've never heard of before. Anyway it is delightful theatre and just the right size for productions of this scale.
And the scale of this play is small: a six hander. There is only one set, the drawing room of a ground-floor flat in London with a conservatory that belongs to Guy (Jonathon Broadbent). I haven't been much of a theatre goer, so my experience is limited, but I suspect that the set was designed 'narrow' rather than deep to push the action forward. The set is also isolated by a wide neon strip that occasionally springs to life with pulsating colour.
For those who don't know 'My Night with Reg' is a comedy set in London in the early eighties and concerning the lives of six gay men. It opens just as a flat-warming party is about to begin. In the conservatory painter Eric (Lewis Reeves) is finishing the decorating. The first guest arrives, John (Julian Ovenden). He and Guy are old friends from university days and the conversation quickly turns to a undergraduate play which was directed by Guy. Appropriately enough (on many levels) the play in question is Eurypides's 'The Bacchae'. The priapic John starred as the god Dionysus. Dionysus, the god of tragedy (the presiding deity of the Athenian Dionysia where tragedies were performed in competition) and this play is also a tragedy in that it deals with the after-effects of the Aids epidemic as it was then in the early 1980s. Eventually the other guests arrive: the wonderfully theatrical Daniel (a bit of a tour du force by Geoffrey Streatfield), who is also Reg's partner, on a flying visit, and, eventually Bernie (Richard Cant) and his partner Benny (played with a real cocky sexuality and vigour by Matt Bardock). Reg, we never meet, but is a constant presence throughout the play, as it darkens from a comedy of manners into something, as the facades shatter, deeply moving and poignant told through three scenes, played here almost continuously, the light only dimming between times. (The first one caused me just a little confusion as the characters who speak last in the first scene are the first to speak in the second.) It is perhaps Reg, then, who is the presiding deity of this play (not John), the unseen deus ex machina who messes up people's lives, and yet inspires such love in all he touches. Elyot aptly follows the classical rules of tragedy by having the deaths take place off-stage, but only follows two of the Three Unities laid down by Aristotle in the Poetics (of Action and Place) ignoring the third by spreading out the scenes over four years. I remember being struck at the curtain call by the look of physical and emotional exhaustion on the faces of Julian Ovenden and Geoffrey Streatfield, and rightly so for this play is, in its own way, as ruthless and pitiless as any other tragedy, as un-merciful as 'The Bacchae' itself.
On reflection, it seems that is possible to always, at the beginning of the play at least, divide the cast in half: half working-class, half middle; half university educated, half not; half in relationships, half not, and so on. And perhaps importantly half promiscuous and half not. Perhaps it is those with the education that remain the most underdeveloped emotionally, the ones desperate for love, but place themselves in positions where that love will remain always unfulfilled and/or crushed. They are perhaps also the ones who are unable to change - they are shown continually reliving the past. The ones who, at the end of the play, are unable to reach out to one another and offer comfort, for they are the ones like the Bacchae who have been driven mad and are unable to see the pain they inflict for what it is.