My Night With Reg
by Kevin Elyot
Directed by Robert Hastie
Donmar Warehouse Production
Transferred to the Apollo Theatre, London
12 February 2015, 14.30
Jonathan Broadbent as Guy
Julian Ovenden as John
Geoffrey Streatfield as Daniel
Lewis Reeves as Eric
Richard Cant as Bernie
Matt Bardock as Benny
I’m somewhat wary of plays transferring from exciting theatrical spaces like the Donmar or the Almeida or the RSC to West End proscenium theatres (I thought it killed Wolf Hall, for example, and I’m sure King Charles III would have been better at the Almeida). This play has garnered so many five star reviews in its transfer that I was fascinated to see it. The morning after seeing it, I noticed that this blog has been getting several “hits” a day on Zach Braff’s All New People (2012) , possibly because Susannah Fielding from that production is currently doing such a brilliant Portia at the Almeida Theatre. I looked at that review again this morning and I can virtually recycle it. Some quotes:
“There is an American style … They have decent one-scene sets, a very economically-viable small cast of three or four and (always) absolutely superb acting. The acting is invariably “better” than the play. While I enjoyed all the performances, in the end I didn’t think it a “great” play. Good; excellent dialogue, better than your average Ayckbourn by a considerable distance, but not great. It was competent and well-constructed and paced, and well-directed, but not innovative, nor did it have that indefinable edge that great theatre does. Definitely recommended, and you won’t regret going, but in the end over-reaching itself in its attempt to be meaningful. It felt late sixties / early seventies in a way I can’t define, though the comedy lines are far cruder than a 60s writer could have got away with.” (All New People review)
My Night With Reg dates from 1994, when it hoovered up awards, but even then this comedy about a small group of gay friends facing up to the creep of AIDS must have felt slightly 80s. I wondered if the set design was so conventional that it was a theatrical in-joke in itself – one stage right entrance, French windows at the back, sofa plonked in the middle. Essential props stage left (record player and record rack). The one modern effect, a lighting bar around the stage, got used twice … for a loud Every Breath You Take (there are jokes about the police v The Police later) at the beginning and Starman later.
It’s also a conventional three act play, one hour 55 minutes without interval – I felt the third act was noticeably shorter, so maybe it wouldn’t have cut for an interval well. By the way, the third act seeming short is a positive in any play. If it feels long, it’s not working! The transition between acts, each with a two year time jump, is a slight fade and it took a couple of minutes into the new act to re-orientate, as the set hadn’t changed and it was really one off, another person on. For Act two it was only Daniel’s change to black suit and tie that oriented us … John and Guy were in the same clothes. I thought the confusion / orientation deliberate.
L to R: Daniel (Geoffrey Streatfield), Guy (Jonathan Broadbent), John (Julian Ovenden)
The first two acts centre on Guy, played by the marvelous Jonathan Broadbent, who we have seen with Filter’s anarchic Shakespeare productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night. Because we’ve seen him in wildly innovative comedy before, it was a surprise to see him in conventional comedy- it really does looks like a modern version of Coward, Maugham or Rattigan, interestingly three “well-crafted play” gay writers who in their day could not have gone near this overt content, but would have been happy with the sets and smooth comic acting styles. I do wonder if it is deliberate reference.
As in so much Jacobean drama, a fault is killing off your best-loved character before the third act.
Are the characters stereotypical? Guy is sweet, yearning for a real relationship (a marriage?). He’s liked by everyone, but not fancied. He’s also rather sad, having held a torch for John since university. John is the rich, handsome stud, an ex-rugby playing, ex-public school boy who went to Marlborough. Daniel is the hilariously flamboyant camp person who no one is going to mistake for heterosexual even on the shortest meeting. These three all met at university. Bernie is boring, nervous, obsessed with conservatories. His partner Bennie is a London bus driver, looking tougher and rougher than the rest. Bernie and Bennie are a marvelous double act. Eric, who starts off as a painter and decorator working on the conservatory, is the svelte young lad. We don’t have the aging queen stereotype, but perhaps that is Reg, who we never see. The very name Reg suggests he’s older. The unifying factor is Reg. Everyone (except Guy, I think) had spent a night with Reg.
Daniel (Geoffrey Streatfield) & Eric (Lewis Reeves)
It’s an odd comedy, starting in scene one with Guy’s flat warming, moving a couple of years to the party after Reg’s funeral, then ending in the flat after Guy’s funeral – Guy had just the one careless encounter in Lanzarote, though early on they remark he’s so careful that he ”masturbates in Marigolds.” There were an awful lot of in-jokes and a lot of stuff went right past us and got lots of knowing laughs.
Music is important. The record collector in me was delighted to see a box of 45s (and I would have liked to see what they chose). The two LPs we see a lot are Elton John’s A Single Man and David Bowie’s The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars. We were pleased they had the taste to have Daniel and John singing and dancing to Starman. In the context we had feared Bony M or The Village People. Reg’s favourite piece of music, with three references is one of our favourites: Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, 2nd Movement. The LP sleeve being brandished around was a Deutsche Grammophon one, but it sounded like the Leonard Bernstein (fittingly) version on CBS to me. But the LP they took out of the Ziggy Stardust sleeve didn’t look like the correct RCA record either … sorry, I digress. The only remarkable production effect was several claps of thunder and visible rain on the conservatory through the French windows.
Elton John is the subject of major in-jokes. Young Eric slept with a man who wouldn’t give his name, so Eric called him Dwight after a boy he had a crush on at school. As we later realize, Dwight was Reg. Reg Dwight is Elton John’s real name. Then the Elton John references start falling into place. The A Single Man album contained A Song for Guy (and the 45 sleeve has the same picture). Guy in the play is a “single man” (which is why his flat warming gifts are cookery books on cooking for one). The play is in itself “A song for Guy.” When we first see Daniel, he was supposed to be “leaving tonight on a plane” (for Sydney) but came back after a delay. So the innocuous name John for the third of the trio of university pals must echo (Elton) John. Bernie Taupin wrote Elton’s lyrics, and Benny & The Jets was another major song co-written by Bernie Taupin & Elton John. so we have Bernie and Benny. I’m struggling a bit with Eric, though the play was 1994, just after Elton John & Eric Clapton recorded Runaway Train together and they have played Sacrifice together … from the aptly named Sleeping With The Past (1990). I’d bet there’s a better reference that I haven’t picked up. If you know it, please comment.
Bernie ( Richard Cant, seated), Benny (Matt Bardock, standing)
So driving home. Our opinions are straight opinions, so we don’t know what effect the play has on gay viewers, though I’d assume it liberating to see it all up there. We found it both sad and odd that the only topics of conversation in the entire play are sex, and about being gay, with a couple of short jokey asides on knitting and cookery. That’s very limiting. There were a couple of gratuitous nude bits, and a great deal of smoking (but in 1994 that would be normal). The smoke smelled “real” though with a herbal edge, and we felt sorry for Julian Ovenden on a matinee day with two shows. He had to smoke a lot, even if you only inhale once per cigarette. The one line that didn’t get a laugh was when John, always cadging drinks and cigarettes says “Can I bum a fag?” which is a well-known, well-worn British-American hybrid sentence confuser. I guess it was the direct British meaning with no confusion.
As a play? We both thought that if it was switched to promiscuous heterosexuals it would not have picked up a single one of those gushing five star reviews. Some, but not too many fours, though it is well-crafted and superbly-acted. It lacks that moment (or three) of theatrical magic that a five star play must have.
Having just seen (two days later) the touring production of Arcadia which was so static in blocking, we both said that in retrospect, My Night With Reg was so much better directed on movement and blocking within an equally conventional stage design.
Back to my favorite rant. If you can credit “Reheasal Photographer” and “Press PR” writ large in bold in the programme, how come there is no space to credit Every Breath You Take (The Police, written by Sting) , Starman, and Ziggy Stardust (David Bowie) or Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G in the programme? Take Starman – a major and very lively fun scene is Daniel and John singing and dancing along with the record, and doing so brilliantly.
Having half a dozen versions of the Ravel, I wanted to check my guess that it was the Bernstein version, and if not, which one is it?
Big impacts in the play, but neither the performance nor the writing are credited. I’m sorry, David Bowie had more impact on the success of the play than Donmar’s “Apprentice” or single members of the Board of Directors. It makes me angry.
Good essay on Kevin Elyot by Alan Hollinghurst, but far too much generic page filler on other Nimax West End productions, London’s Lost Theatres, and stuff on Broadway. Yes, they can put all this in every West End programme. A poor programme indeed by Globe / RSC / National standards.