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.

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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. 

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