My Night with Reg


It was World AIDS Day on De­cem­ber 1 when we met di­rec­tor Robert Has­tle in Covent Gar­den. Which couldn’t have been more apt, con­sid­er­ing we were in his of­fice to talk about his ac­claimed 20th an­niver­sary re­vival of one of the land­mark Bri­tish plays about HIV and AIDS – Kevin Elyot’s Olivier-win­ning My Night with Reg. Fol­low­ing its suc­cess last year at the Don­mar Ware­house – where Robert is as­so­ciate di­rec­tor – it’s trans­fer­ring to the West End.

First per­formed in 1994 at London’s Royal Court The­atre, My Night with Reg deals with the dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect on a group of gay friends of their re­spec­tive en­coun­ters with the tit­u­lar – but never seen – Reg.

Mov­ing seam­lessly be­tween com­edy and tragedy, the play cap­tures the fear and un­cer­tainty in the Bri­tish gay com­mu­nity at the height of the AIDS cri­sis.

Thank­fully, the treat­ment of HIV and AIDS – both med­i­cally and so­cially – has evolved since. Di­ag­no­sis is no longer a death sen­tence. But with re­cent fig­ures re­leased by Pub­lic Health Eng­land show­ing a con­tin­ued in­crease in HIV in­fec­tion rates among young gay men, My Night with Reg is far from a pe­riod piece. Elyot’s of­ten heart-break­ing study of the ties bind­ing friend­ships dur­ing ill­ness and loss res­onates pow­er­fully to­day.

Robert, 37, whose di­rec­tion of My Night with Reg earned him an Emerg­ing Tal­ent nom­i­na­tion at the re­cent Evening Stan­dard Awards, saw the orig­i­nal pro­duc­tion’s West End trans­fer while on a Na­tional Youth The­atre trip. “I was com­pletely blind­sided by it,” he says. Grow­ing up in Scar­bor­ough, he con­tin­ues: “It wasn’t even that I’d only seen gay stereo­types on stage be­fore. As far as I know, I hadn’t seen any rep­re­sen­ta­tions at all.”

What most struck Robert as a gay teenager, out to his friends and fam­ily but not to the wider world, was Elyot’s fo­cus – five years be­fore Rus­sell T Davies did it in Queer as Folk – on “gay men just liv­ing their lives, with a va­ri­ety of re­la­tion­ships and friend­ships and per­son­al­i­ties I’d never seen be­fore.” For all that hap­pens to

them, th­ese aren’t to­kenis­tic or self­loathing char­ac­ters.

Robert would use a speech from the play in his RADA au­di­tion and, after switch­ing tracks from act­ing to di­rect­ing, he jumped at the chance to re­vive it at the Don­mar. But first he had to con­vince the for­mi­da­ble Elyot – also re­spon­si­ble for 2007 Chan­nel 4 gay drama Clapham Junc­tion – that he was right for the job. “He was fuck­ing terrifying the first time I met him, dressed in black Prada in the cor­ner of The De­lau­nay,” re­calls Robert. “I very much had to au­di­tion for him.”

So what was Elyot – known to friends as ‘the Em­press’ – like? “He had a naughty sense of hu­mour, he was a per­fec­tion­ist and he played im­pe­ri­ous with a very sharp tongue in his cheek,” re­calls Robert fondly. By the end of their first meet­ing, he’d suc­ceeded in win­ning the play­wright round. “And we then spent a happy few months work­ing on the play to­gether.”

Sadly, Elyot passed away after a bout ill­ness be­fore re­hearsals be­gan. “There was a strange sym­me­try to the whole thing,” says Robert. “His fu­neral was on the Fri­day, the wake was in the re­hearsal room and we started re­hearsals on the Mon­day for this play about hav­ing been to a fu­neral.” Smil­ing, he con­tin­ues: “He was a master craftsman and, as small con­so­la­tion, I’d like to think he might have ap­pre­ci­ated his own comic tim­ing.”

My Night with Reg still stands up be­cause it’s “a beau­ti­fully con­structed piece of the­atre,” says Robert. Know­ingly writ­ing in a tra­di­tion of draw­ing-room com­edy, Elyot “takes that DNA from Wilde, Coward and Rat­ti­gan – all of them, of course, gay writ­ers – and makes it ex­plicit, fresh and new.” And com­edy mask­ing some­thing “much more com­pli­cated and dark” is such a “driv­ing force in English the­atre,” Robert points out.

“And I think all of Kevin’s plays are per­sonal,” he con­tin­ues, “in the sense that he’s al­ways writ­ing about that mo­ment in life where paths di­verged or an op­por­tu­nity was missed.” It’s no sur­prise to Robert that, in his fi­nal years, Elyot wrote sev­eral episodes of Miss Marple and Poirot. “Be­cause the mur­der mys­tery is all about try­ing to recre­ate a mo­ment.”

And a sense of melan­cho­lia – of a lost mo­ment – per­vades My Night with Reg through its older char­ac­ters. “They’re the gen­er­a­tion who were born when ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was still il­le­gal,” says Robert. Then came the greater free­dom of the 70s. “So, if you were one of those men, you could be for­given for think­ing that, fi­nally, you could live your life as you chose to live it. And then along comes some­thing – HIV and AIDS – that com­pletely re­draws the map.”

When Robert’s pro­duc­tion opened, some of his gay friends wor­ried that the char­ac­ters re­in­forced neg­a­tive stereo­types of gay be­hav­iour. That’s not how he sees it. “The play isn’t an­grily po­lit­i­cal in the way that the Amer­i­can dra­matic re­sponse [to HIV and AIDS] was,” he re­flects. “But be­cause Kevin was such a bril­liant writer, he’s stitched in his big­gest po­lit­i­cal state­ment – that this dis­ease does not cor­re­late with moral­ity.”

He con­tin­ues: “It doesn’t mat­ter whether you’re be­hav­ing in ways that main­stream so­ci­ety thinks you shouldn’t or whether [like one character] you’re ac­tu­ally vir­tu­ally celi­bate. It makes no dif­fer­ence.”

In its own poignantly funny way, My Night with Reg shows that HIV and AIDS doesn’t dis­crim­i­nate – so­ci­ety does. And when all-gay plays are still a rel­a­tively rare sight in ma­jor Bri­tish the­atres, Robert is proud that its suc­cess at the Don­mar has opened the play to new au­di­ences at the Apollo The­atre. “Kevin al­ways wanted it to go to the West End again,” he re­veals, “so I hope he’d be de­lighted, too.”


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