As a comedy about gay sex and the importance of protection, it’s unwittingly symbolic that My Night With Reg starts with a young painter and decorator recklessly glossing conservatory woodwork without a sheet to collect his white splashes.
It’s also brilliant that such a modern morality play should be set in a theatrically conventional living room with actual French windows. So firmly does it cling to the deliberately clichéd three-act one-set format where the same characters meet on successive social occasions, it could be Ayckbourn. It could also, since the titular character is permanently offstage, be an Abigail’s Party for the AIDS era.
However skilfully handled, ‘Reg’ is tinged with sadness: for the untimely death two months before this revival of its author Kevin Elyot, for the loss of much of the generation of young men portrayed in the play, and for the unfulfilled life of kindly, generous, cautious Guy — “he even masturbates in Marigolds” — who is everyone’s reliable friend but no-one’s lover, in a decade where kindness and generosity were dismissed in favour of the curve of a buttock or the heft of a cock as seen in the half-light of Heaven or the Heath.
Elyot is brilliant at forcing his all-gay all-male characters to face the shattered mirror of their lives and both director Robert Hastie and the excellent cast are as unflinching in the task as they are adept at timing the comedy. This was an age of surfaces, particularly for fanciable college hero John, a glowing performance from Julian Ovenden whose deadly combination of easy charm and inherited entitlement is, depending how well you like it, either immaculately detailed or ripped directly from Hugh Grant in About a Boy. Geoffrey Streatfeild excels equally as globe-trotting adventurer Daniel with a high-flying career, a vigorous sexual appetite and an acidulated tongue for the best lines in the show, delivered with luxurious relish in the most convincing and likeable of the six characterisations.
What links the men, apart from the obvious bonds of ex-college friendship, is that most have encountered eponymous Reg — who clearly liked to spread it around a bit: “at the funeral, even the vicar said what a good shag he was”. You might think a play set in such a devastating period for promiscuity ought to be solemn, or angry and strident like contemporary imports Angels In America and The Normal Heart, but the genius of the piece is that its gentle domestic comedy leaves a deeper and more lasting impression than the polemical dramas.
All the performances are fine and bear comparison with the original 1994 star cast of Anthony Calf, John Sessions and David Bamber, although Jonathan Broadbent’s Guy possibly comes over more of a camp chubby than Bamber so it’s harder for us to believe he might ever have stood a chance with Ovenden’s character. There’s full-frontal nudity in the revival which is certainly elegantly done; Ovenden and Lewis Reeves as the young decorator have tanned and gym-sculpted bodies, but — like the suede loafers worn without socks — it’s not exactly of the period.
My Night With Reg continues at the Donmar Warehouse until 27 September. All tickets are technically sold out, but returns and day seats are available. Contact the box office on 0844 871 7624 or see the theatre website for details. We saw My Night With Reg on a press ticket from The Corner Shop PR.