My theatre going calendar is slowly starting to expand beyond musicals, and on Saturday night I saw a production that made me really grateful for that change: Kevin Elyot’s My Night with Reg at the Donmar Warehouse¸ in its first major revival since its premiere at the Royal Court and West End transfer. This production was my introduction to Elyot’s work as a playwright, and what struck me was how it spoke to and touched me on so many different levels. Having just a cast of six, all men, the play is often noted as becoming ‘a defining moment in the lives of gay men’ and became an instant classic. Yes, it follows gay men and the questions of sexual manners and morals in the time of AIDS ( cleverly and pointedly, the disease is never mentioned by name) but what I loved about Reg is the fact that it is about so much more than that. It’s a wickedly funny, beautifully tragic exploration of friendship, time, happiness and life itself.
I think the Donmar is fast becoming one of my favourite London theatres; and its intimacy lends itself in spades to this production, and again as with my previous trip I was struck by how cleverly the creative team are able to use the space to brilliant effect. With design by Peter McKintosh, the action all takes place in the sitting room of Guys flat, with a conservatory looking out into the garden, so right from the minute I entered into the auditorium, I felt like I was intruding but far from being a negative feeling, it made me want to invest immediately into the six men I would encounter throughout the night, because I was entering into their world. In a way, it spoke to me about the universality of the play: we all have our own ‘little bubbles’: friendships, relationships, secrets, lies and we can choose who let into them; and the first scene all revolves around Guy’s flat warming, old friends reconnecting after nine and a half years. Credit also to Paul Pyant (Lighting) and Gregory Clarke (Sound), I will never be able to hear David Bowie’s Star Man, Every Breath You Take by The Police, or a thunderstorm without reminiscing about how cleverly this production was put together. Robert Hastie’s direction also allowed for me to feel and appreciate the intimacy of the piece: when it’s funny you know it, but he also has this tremendous ability to teach his actors to appreciate and work with the dramatic pause, hence that even when the characters weren’t speaking, you felt the meaning and truth in those silences. Throughout the play, four years are spanned, and we join these men at different moments in their interconnecting lives, so the action moves along at a good pace with major changes in terms of plot, and yet illustrates in its wonderfully quiet, bittersweet way, how some things don’t ever change.
Having not been familiar with the play at all before this, I was struck by how the titular Reg never physically appears, but is always there in spirit, and as such becomes the glue that holds these six men together, even if the very essence of each man’s encounter with Reg hinges on darker elements of human nature: secrets, lies. As a result of his almost supernatural presence, we are given a window into the lives of those he touches, and through the consequences of each revelation, each character and their struggles is thrown into sharper focus. I related to each of them in different ways, and thoroughly enjoyed all the chemistry the actors had. For all but one of them, it was the first time I’d seen them on stage, and I hope this was the first of many occasions.
‘I sometimes think I’d rather be fancied than liked’
Jonathan Broadbent plays Guy with a wonderful mixture of humour and this beautiful, almost ‘world weary’ charisma. He is the one that is often the butt of all the jokes between the others, and in the same way becomes the one who hears all the secrets and drama and negotiates his way around it. He’s completely besotted with John, which is at equal turns adorable and heartbreaking to watch, because John is completely oblivious. I know how this feels with my own crush, so I was always watching all his body language and hearing every nuance of emotion and longing he had thinking: ‘oh my god. This is exactly me and my love life’! Particularly, I loved his conversations with Eric & John in the second scene because they illustrated how Jonathan could easily and effortlessly switch from emotion to emotion and still move me with the same intensity of feeling. He is a man who loves and just so desperately wants to be loved in return, and he is simply trying to do the right thing amid everyone else’s chaos, and Jonathan gives a beautifully bittersweet performance. For me, it was particularly tragic when the implications of his reply of ‘Nine and a half, actually’ to John’s estimate of when the friends last got together finally dawned on me, because I realised: everything is going to and has been changing in the lives of these men, but sweet, loyal, lovely Guy has been counting, and he’s trapped.
‘Didn’t know what time it was, the lights were low oh oh, and I leaned back on my radio oh oh’
Geoffrey Streatfeild plays Daniel, the partner of our eponymous Reg. He did a wonderful job with all the humour (oh how I roared at all the sexual innuendos and double entendre) and loved his physicality in doing so; I didn’t just hear the words; I saw the humour in the way he moved and expressed himself. In this way, and in my naivety in the early stages of the play I had the character pegged down as the comedy of the piece, but throughout the second and third scenes he undergoes a really interesting transformation where Geoffrey showed me that he is equally wonderful at playing depth and drama, the most brilliant moments for me being his arrival and a conversation he has with John about his suspicions of Reg, in scenes two and three respectively. My reaction towards him changed completely in the space of a few minutes from belly aching laughter in the opening scene to this desperate pang of sadness for him, and I loved how natural he made the transition seem; nothing about it felt forced and every moment of his stage time was believable.
As I briefly touched on earlier, David Bowie’s Star Man was a particular highlight and my face split into the widest grin whenever Geoffrey and Julian would burst into song!
‘Like, while were pissing around, getting our getting our knickers in a twist, it’s all going on anyway, isn’t it? Whatever we do.’
Lewis Reeves plays Eric, a young painter/ decorator and part time stand in landlord of The Frog & Trumpet who dreams of becoming a policeman. I was immediately endeared to him from the very outset, when his singing short blasts of Every Breath You Take punctuated the opening between John & Guy. What I loved about the character of Eric is that while everybody else is busy with all these secrets and lies, or lamenting the state of their love lives, Eric just lets it all wash over him, and tells it like it is. Lewis brings out the loveable side of Eric in spades, through his facial expressions, his timing of and the way he delivered his lines, but Eric also has moments of wonderful unflinching honesty, that Lewis gave great warmth and I found incredibly touching. Eric is the youngest of the group, and I loved the scope that Elyot’s writing gives to the dynamic between them: Eric has some really lovely moments with John & Guy later in the play that are both bittersweet and heart-warming, and Lewis tackled these with great aplomb and conviction. One moment that really moved me was when Eric says to Guy: ‘You shouldn’t play around, should you?’ When Guy asks what he means, Eric continues: ‘when you’re with someone, you shouldn’t do it’; the irony given the situation and the sincerity in his voice moved me so much I was on the verge of tears.
‘If I haven’t caught anything, it’ll be a fucking miracle’
I first came across Matt Bardock through being a fan of Casualty, so I was excited to see him on stage. Here he plays Benny, the seemingly long suffering partner of Richard Cant’s Bernie. I think the character and Matt’s portrayal was the one that intrigued and surprised me the most. Benny has moments of wonderful, dry, sarcastic wit that appealed to my own sense of humour, but simmering away beneath all this, I got a sense of resentment and fear that made his character more rounded and believable to me thanks to Matt’s beautifully understated portrayal; there was this quiet intensity to everything he did, and I was drawn to him whenever he was on stage. There is one speech from Benny that throws the context of the piece again into unsettling focus, where he talks about the ritual of checking his body after every sexual encounter. The shift in tone hit me like a ton of bricks; and I was once again struck by how Elyot’s writing challenged me to think because it’s so rich and multi-layered, as was Matt’s portrayal of Benny. My favourite moment of his was a tender one he shared with John, whom he comforts when he breaks down in tears.
Benny’s relationship with Bernie is a complex one, they have settled into the recognisable pattern that I imagine most couples go through at some point in a long term relationship, i.e. things become repetitive, dull and there’s resentment from Benny because of that, best epitomised in when he returns from the garden saying Bernie is ‘twittering on about fuck knows what out there, I’ve had to come in else I’d have whacked him with a spade.’ Amusing, yes, but also troubling: again I was challenged to think and realised my reaction to all of these characters and their liaisons with Reg was constantly changing throughout the entire piece. I understood that I was sympathetic towards him to some degree and that he made me laugh, but I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to feel towards him knowing what he’d done; and I enjoyed the uncertainty.
If I dwell upon what he’s got up to, what he might still be getting up too.. breaks my heart, Guy, it does really’
Richard Cant is the other half of the ‘institution’ that is Benny & Bernie. Blending this adorably infuriating ‘mother hen’ kind of character who appreciates conservatories, dislikes smoking and insists the week should begin on Sunday when it comes to the cinema guide with this sweet, sad almost crippling insecurity about Benny and how his own encounter with Reg makes him feel, watching Richard bring Bernie to life was really powerful: he made me focus on every element of his performance: not only what he was saying, but how he was saying it; he is wonderfully expressive as a performer and made even the simplest gestures speak volumes. In contrast to Eric, Bernie is the oldest of the group, and watching how he acted and reacted against the others was really interesting; Through Richard’s performance, Bernie struck me as the one of this group of friends didn’t quite ‘fit’ and was a rather sad and lonely soul, and though Bernie perhaps doesn’t speak as much as the others, but when he does it’s always memorable and incredibly moving.
Richard and Matt’s fractious duo of Benny and Bernie are hardly an advert for the ideal relationship, and the tension between the two was so palpable and convincing that I wondered at the potential for what could happen to them offstage, and felt really uncomfortable whenever our other gents would talk about them.
‘I’ve never loved anybody before. He knocked me for six. The first time in my life I felt I wasn’t in control.’
The first time Julian Ovenden came into my life was October 11th, 2012. At the time, he was playing author J.M Barrie in the original production of Finding Neverland in Leicester. I remember being completely and utterly smitten by him, and since then have longed for more opportunities to see him onstage. Flexing his non musical theatre acting muscles here, I thought he did an incredible job as John, who begins the play as this perfectly inauthentic portrayal of a rich kid; oozing charm and swagger by the bucketload, but with a suit of armour to guard against the disappointments of the world. As the play progresses, our eponymous Reg appears again, revealing the many chinks he has managed to create in John’s armour, leaving him exposed and vulnerable. Julian beautifully plays the quandary John finds himself in: he is completely in love with Reg and knows he would break Daniel’s heart if this was discovered, so he tells the only person who we know would be equally devastated by the news. I knew that I should feel angry at John for going behind his friend’s back, but from the minute John tells Guy, I just couldn’t, damn Julian and wonderful acting! One of the things I look for watching any actor work is their ability to make me connect and for me, I get that in the eyes. If I can look in their eyes and they strike me as being completely ‘in’ their respective character’s headspace, they’ll have me; and Julian didn’t lose me, not for a single moment. I had chills in many of John’s quieter sad moments, and my heart broke for him when a familiar piece of music rouses him looking ridiculously handsome and sleepily dishevelled, to go over to the record player and take the cover in his arms and hold it to his chest, crying quietly, or when he opens up to Eric about his definition of the ‘worst thing’. I was completely and utterly transfixed by him from beginning to end.
I was saddened to hear that Elyot passed away before this revival opened: I think he would have been incredibly proud of what this cast and crew have done with his beautiful work. I know Sir Ian Mckellen and I were very impressed, indeed.