In Bulgakov’s theatrical novel Black Snow he points out that the Russians have an untranslatable word for when something goes wrong on stage. These mishaps have the gracious effect of concentrating the audience’s attention, a sharpening of eyes and ears too used to the smooth rapport of rehearsed text. But more than this they are reminders that in theatre no show is ever quite the same. So it was at this performance of Robert Hastie’s absorbing production of My Night With Reg when a bottle of champagne refused to pop. The cast’s felicitous corpsing and rousing refusal to be thwarted by prop malfunction could not have endeared us to them more, right from the very start.
Thankfully the late Kevin Elyot’s play is in no need of such nightly surprises to keep it bubbling. Peter McKintosh’s tastefully designed flat, in which the play is set over three meticulously selected evenings, is a perfect reflection of its virginal owner, Guy. The Hokusai print, Dree’s Olympia on the coffee table, Radio Times splayed on the sofa, the painfully attended-to shrubbery – all suggest a man desperate to suggest satisfaction in his solace (this is before the bittersweet arrival of his house-warming gifts: cooking-for-one, times two). Ever-present throughout is the perennial English summer rain, which gives a nice flow of movement between garden and house. As well-pitched as this setting is, any sense of over-cosiness is ejected by a pulsing soundtrack and fluorescent framing, hinting at the wilder past behind this placid present.
There is an awkwardness to the play’s exposition which conveys a lighter, camper, and more frothy piece than it really is (neat whiskey is neatly corrected with a note of surprise to “straight?”). But it does not take long for Elyot’s script, now twenty years old, to break the ice. Guy’s party is prematurely joined by the strapping John, a school-friend Guy has been besotted with ever since he flashed his smile in the cafeteria (“I poured custard on my quiche”). As blithe and momentum-less as John seems now, there are some tender revelations of his talismanic and protective character at school – a boy as equally at home on the rugby pitch as in a leather jockstrap playing Dionysus. Soon they are joined by their fellow graduate, the bombastic Daniel. Toasts to gross indecency, sodomy and public nudity ensue, as well as a wonderfully unself-conscious rendition of Bowie’s Starman. Daniel’s partner is the eponymous Reg, and as the play hurtles forward Reg’s fractious off-stage actions are fleshed out so faithfully that you almost forget he has yet to be seen.
The casting is particularly fine, and the company’s colourful characterisations create a rich community: Julian Ovenden’s vulpine John, Geoffrey Streatfeild’s relentlessly chippy Daniel, Richard Cant’s gloriously whinging Bernie and Matt Bardock’s foul-mouthed Benny. Least obvious but greatly engaging is Lewis Reeve’s touching Eric, whose gentility grows beautifully as the play progresses.
Yet it is Guy who lingers in the mind. Jonathan Broadbent is given and makes triumphs out of Guy’s many moments of surprise and angst, with a bespectacled wonder at his varying fortunes. An awful incident in Lanzarote is related with stoic cheer. Even in the final act Guy’s presence remains onstage, and the heartache of his absence deepens with the slow chaos infusing the flat – the strewn glasses, scattered cigarette cartons and unplumped pillows. It is further tribute to Elyot that he manages to advance a plot with so much sorrow without mentioning the spectre in the room – a spectre which feeds the action with at least three funerals.
There are probably plays with more kissing than My Night With Reg, but none come to mind. So warm and affectionate is the world created by Elyot’s conservatory epic that it tangibly tangles not just the cast’s but our own comprehension of affection, love, sex and indifference. Reg may be a no-show, but My Night With Reg most certainly is not.