Advanced warning this isn’t really a review. The play has closed anyway, and I’m not able to be really objective enough about this to say much in the way of critical content. So let’s agree to disagree and call it a reflection.
My Night With Reg is known by me, and possibly by many others as “The British AIDS play” it’s not the only play to address the issue but it is by far the most focused on it as a single issue, although it never actually mentions it by name (more on that later). It is also the most British of British plays. And I adored it.
My Night with Reg centres on a group of friends, all gay men, ranging from 18 to mid-40s over three separate meetings at Guy’s house. In the first gathering Daniel talks of his new love ‘Reg’ as the play continues it transpires he isn’t the only one to have had an encounter with Reg. John in particular is in love with Reg also, having been with him the night before Guy’s gathering. In scene 2 Reg has died, from AIDS related illness (again although it’s never named) leaving John distraught but unable to confess to his friend Daniel why. In scene 3 Guy, the most ‘safety conscious’ of their group has also died, leaving his flat to John, who he had been in love with since University.
In terms of plot, to quote Sondheim, there’s not an awful lot. But I like that about it. In terms of politics, again there’s not a lot (generous in terms of capitol P politics there’s none) but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make a statement about AIDS. What I love about ‘Reg’ is it’s ability to engage and move without being plot-politics heavy.
Perhaps it works only in context of the other AIDS plays. We need the others, we need angry vitriol of The Normal Heart, we need the sweeping world changing politics of Angels in America and we need the grass roots determination of Rent. All of these were and are important but there is also something wonderful about the approach Kevin Elyot takes in ‘Reg’.
Michael Billington wrote about Angels in America that it finally took American drama out of the living room. In Reg the AIDS drama firmly returns to the living room. And alongside those big political texts that had been imported that works so well. In Reg the men involved aren’t (as far as we know at least) involved in the political fights of the era, they are just trying to live their lives, gather in living rooms and drink Blue Nun. They are also older men, and later in the AIDS crisis, in their 30s and 40s when Elyot writes in 1994. But that doesn’t make it less affecting.
It is however so wonderfully British. Which I think for me personally, spending far too many years studying plays on this topic, is refreshing. Although the American plays are brilliant, affecting and rallying cries. There is something wonderful about something which speaks your own language. In this case a language of camp humour and almost militant avoidance of the topics that should be discussed, making them louder than ever. Firstly the humour, in a hark back to that over used phrase ‘Blitz spirit’ there is a sense of a Britain under the AIDS crisis just getting on with it. All these men are more than aware of what is happening but they get on with their lives. In a sense this is highly realistic. Not everyone was Larry Kramer and despite the pervasive nature of the crisis, lives still had to be lived, jobs gone to, houses cleaned meals cooked. And ‘Reg’ shows this. I also love that Elyot includes in his mash up of men working class people. I’m always an advocate of seeing some working class people on stage, and not just in an Artful Dodger manner. In ‘Reg’ Benny is a bus driver, and AIDS crisis or no, he must carry on (also a gay working class man in the theatre, surely not?!) the point being life very much goes on, even as the play later unravels in the face of death.
These characters aren’t particularly philosophical about it either. They talk of love and missing in a very honest way. When John, distraught at the loss of Reg-the lover he can’t admit to in front of several friends-his finding comfort in a passionate kiss, and exit with Benny, is both emotionally charged and incredibly real. When people experience loss, even in the midst of a crisis that is inherently political, they don’t always respond by rallying at the barricades, they express grief privately, they also do things like take a friend home to bed instead of dealing with the grief. And for this, Elyot’s play is incredibly real, and moving. The kiss between John and Benny, or the final exchange between John and Daniel, loaded with everything they haven’t said, is incredibly moving.
But against these moments, it’s hilarious, truly laugh out loud funny. yes it’s camp, yes there could (and have) been levied accusations of gay stereotypes. But to that I say, I give Elyot as a gay man writing about gay issues, the benefit of the doubt. Stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason, and I’d lay money on each of the characters being based on someone Elyot knew. There’s also the importance of this now being a historical text, and what was the cultural norm for some gay men in 19994 may well be different now, but that doesn’t mean it’s offensive. Also, have I mentioned, it’s bloody funny? And perhaps forgive me for a moment of theatre nationalism, but it’s a kind of combined black humour and camp humour (and don’t those go together so well?) that only a British play could achieve in talking about AIDS. It is possible, even productive to laugh in the face of the darkest times and Elyot’s play managed that skillfully with emotionally charged moments.
The play stands up well to revival. It feels like a period piece and that’s fine. It also reminds us, perhaps unintentionally that we are again deliberately not talking about AIDS, even though it still exists. And perhaps that was Reg’s strongest enduring message.
As for me, it was a poignant moment at which to see this. Weeks after submitting the theisis I actually felt like I had enough distance to reflect on this. And, if I had my time again one of the (many) things I’d do differently is include this play. It’s so important, and it’s such a strong British voice showing there is more than one way to respond to a crisis.
It’s a great tragedy that Kevin Elyot died within weeks of this revival, I have a feeling he’d have been incredibly proud at how his play stands up, and how it was received.
Oh and as a less sophisticated footnote, being a Downton Abbey fan was slightly awkward this Sunday having just seen a lot more of one of Lady Mary’s suitors than anticipated. Temptation to shout at the TV “You don’t know what you’re missing Mary”…tone suitably lowered I’ll be on my way…