Three's a crowd: My Night With Reg
Show Hide image

How Kevin Elyot's Aids farce My Night With Reg became a play for today

Now showing at London's Apollo Theatre, the 1994 play shines even brighter in an age when its characters could marry.

Almost 2,500 years after Sophocles and Euripides, it was hard to come up with a new form of theatre, but a play that premiered in New York in the spring of 1985 did. Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart was the first major stage play about Aids. And the 30th anniversary of that landmark drama neatly coincides with a revival of the nearest English equivalent: the Donmar Warehouse’s 20th-birthday production of Kevin Elyot’s My Night With Reg transferred on 17 January to the Apollo Theatre in the West End of London.

The decade between the two plays shows in their tone and approach. The Normal Heart was a campaigning work of emergency journalism that was at times an animated article, reporting the story of the discovery of the condition and the slow response by the political, medical and media establishments. The dramatist even co-founded a pressure group called Gay Men’s Health Crisis.

Kramer’s central character, Ned Weeks – first played by Brad Davis and Joel Grey in New York and by Martin Sheen in London – is essentially an interviewer, going into the offices of doctors and others. The Normal Heart feels of its time. The great American play on the subject was written later: Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, which had the advantage of dealing with the Reagan administration as history rather than news.

If America was slow to respond to the epidemic, Britain was scandalously laggard. An article in the programme for the British premiere of The Normal Heart at the Royal Court in 1986 points out that the Thatcher government reacted only when haemophiliacs became infected by contaminated blood, and education about and funding to treat sexually transmitted HIV were slow to happen. An early, privately printed leaflet on safe sex was impounded by the Metropolitan Police on grounds of obscenity.

Although the infection and death toll in the UK was considerable, with the Terrence Higgins Trust serving as the equivalent here of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the impact was proportionately lighter than across the Atlantic – which is why, in 1994, it was possible for Kevin Elyot to write a farce about Aids.

The word is never mentioned in My Night With Reg but the audience soon understands what caused the death of Reg, who belongs with Godot in that select group of theatrical title characters who never appear on stage. At least five – and possibly all six – of the characters on stage are shown to have slept with Reg. In one of the best punchlines in modern theatre, one of the men recalls how “even the vicar at the crematorium said what a good fuck he was”.

The play is concerned more universally with loss and love – unrequited and betrayed – and the inequality of desire. Elyot died last year. Robert Hastie’s revival is a fitting memorial: in contrast to The Normal Heart, My Night With Reg seems even stronger as a play now than it did originally. Today, marriages between these characters would be legal. Although some theatregoers may still be shocked by what happens on stage (a notice warns about smoking and male nudity), it felt to me that My Night With Reg was now playing as Elyot had always hoped it would: as an Ayckbournian comedy of social embarrassment, in which the types of relationships the characters have are as relevant as the type of sex.

Elyot never got to write a play about gay couples in a culture of legal equality but, in another instructive conjunction, Russell T Davies has done it with Cucumber, the largest part of his new trilogy (Thursdays, 9pm, Channel 4), 15 years after Queer As Folk. He presents a middle-aged man panicking at a proposal from his long-term lover. In happier circumstances than 30 years ago, history has given gay drama a new twist.

Last word. Honest

The literary critic Edward Said’s book On Late Style – analysing the work of artists in their final years – was, with some poignancy, published posthumously. So another academic will have to tackle an emerging subgenre in last work: when a writer declares in advance that this marks the end of their career.

Anne Tyler has indicated that A Spool of Blue Thread, published next month, will be her final novel, following the example of Philip Roth, who has insisted that his own shelf will not extend beyond the 2010 novella Nemesis. The declaration of a full stop removes two of the most common fears of older writers: a dropping off in quality (John le Carré has said he has instructed his family to tell him if a book is not good enough to publish) and of dying in mid-sentence. The Irish-Canadian author Brian Moore once expressed horror at the prospect of “some bastard coming along and finishing it off for you”. As it happened, he left a story incomplete, but it has remained unseen.

Roth declared Nemesis the end retrospectively; his forthcoming biography may reveal a subsequent unpublished manuscript. Tyler, however, has ensured that readers will know the significance of the final page of A Spool of Blue Thread. Yet so devoted are her fans, that she may find the drawback of declaring retirement is an international campaign to change her mind.

 

My Night With Reg plays at the Apollo Theatre until April 11th.

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Class Ceiling

Don't Tell the Bride YouTube screengrab
Show Hide image

How did Don’t Tell the Bride lose its spark?

Falling out of the love with reality TV’s wedding planning hit.

Steph, 23, from Nottinghamshire, is standing in a drizzly field wearing a wedding dress. Her betrothed, Billy, is running around in a tweed flat cap trying to make some pigs walk in “a continuous parade”. A man from Guinness World Records is watching with a clipboard, shaking his head. Bridesmaids gaze sorrowfully into the middle distance, each in a damp pig onesie.

Thus ends the second wedding in E4’s new series of Don’t Tell the Bride – and the programme’s integrity with it.

When the classic programme, which follows grooms attempting to plan their wedding (punchline: human males doing some organising), began a decade ago on BBC Three, it had the raw spark of unpredictability. For eight years, the show did nothing fancy with the format, and stuck with pretty ordinary couples who had few eccentric aspirations for their wedding day.

This usually resulted in run-of-the-mill, mildly disappointing weddings where the worst thing that happened would be a reception at the nearest motorway pub, or an ill-fitting New Look low heel.

It sounds dull, but anyone who has religiously watched it knows that the more low-key weddings expose what is truly intriguing about this programme: the unconditional commitment – or doomed nature – of a relationship. As one of the show’s superfans told the Radio Times a couple of years ago:

“It’s perfect, and not in an ironic or post-ironic or snarky way. The format has the solemn weight of a ceremony . . . Don’t Tell the Bride is not about ruined weddings, it’s about hope. Every wedding is a demonstration of how our ambitions curve away from our abilities. It’s a show about striving to deserve love and how that’s rarely enough.”

It also meant that when there were bombshells, they were stand-out episodes. High drama like Series 4’s notorious Las Vegas wedding almost resulting in a no-show bride. Or heart-warming surprises like the geezer Luke in Series 3 playing Fifa and guzzling a tinny on his wedding morning, who incongruously pulls off a stonking wedding day (complete with special permission from the Catholic Church).

For its eight years on BBC Three, a few wildcard weddings were thrown into the mix of each series. Then the show had a brief affair with BBC One, a flirt with Sky, and is now on its tenth year, 13th series and in a brand new relationship – with the more outrageous E4.

During its journey from BBC Three, the show has been losing its way. Tedious relationship preamble has been used to beef up each episode. Some of the grooms are cruel rather than clueless, or seem more pathetic and vulnerable than naïve. And wackier weddings have become the norm.

The programme has now fully split from its understated roots. Since it kicked off at the end of July, every wedding has been a publicity stunt. The pig farm nuptials are sandwiched between a Costa del Sol-based parasail monstrosity and an Eighties Neighbours-themed ceremony, for example. All facilitated by producers clearly handing the groom and best men karaoke booth-style props (sombreros! Inflatable guitars! Wigs!) to soup up the living room planning process.

Such hamminess doesn’t give us the same fly-on-the-wall flavour of a relationship as the older episodes. But maybe this level of artifice is appropriate. As one groom revealed to enraged fans in The Sun this week, the ceremonies filmed are not actually legally binding. “It makes a bit of a mockery of the process that the bride and groom go through this huge ordeal for a ceremony which isn’t even legal,” he said. Perhaps we should’ve predicted it would all eventually end in divorce – from reality.

Don’t Tell the Bride is on E4 at 9pm

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.