Kevin Elyot’s ‘Coming Clean’ (1982) by Samuel Adamson

The Kevin Elyot Award is given annually to support a writer-in-residence at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, where the archive of the playwright Kevin Elyot (1951-2014) is housed. 2024 is the tenth anniversary of Elyot’s death, and the thirtieth anniversary of My Night with Reg, his most famous play. In response to my time in the archive as the recipient of the 2023 Award, I have written a series of articles on Elyot’s six original plays. Here is the first, on his debut Coming Clean. (I have also written a general reflection on Elyot here.)

An actor writes a play

Kevin Elyot began his playwriting career at the Bush, London’s famous new-writing theatre, where as an actor he appeared in several productions between 1976 and 1984. Circa 1981, the Bush’s co-artistic director Simon Stokes suggested to Elyot that he write a play, which, Elyot told Plays and Players in March 1983, he did while

ill with hepatitis. I don’t know whether you’ve ever had it, but you just have to sit around until you get better. I had nothing much else to do, so I wrote the play.1

Entitled Cosy upon delivery, then Clean Living during its development at the Bush, this tale of infidelity in gay relationships premiered as Coming Clean on 3 November 1982.2 David Hayman’s production played to packed houses, though reviews were mixed: here polite, there homophobic. The New Statesman claimed that were the play’s all-male love triangle ‘translated into heterosexual terms,’ it would be ‘universally shrugged off as psychologically and theatrically humdrum.’ The Mail on Sunday prophesied that ‘in time, it will be recognised as the first mature play about homosexuality.’3

The text attracted the attention of the legendary play agent Peggy Ramsay, who subsequently represented Elyot for a short time, and it won the 1982 Samuel Beckett Award.4

An open handbill for Coming Clean at the Bush Theatre
Handbill for the original production (University of Bristol Theatre Collection, KE/3/5/4)

The play: monogamy v. open relationships

At the heart of Coming Clean is a ‘happily married’ gay couple in North London, Tony and Greg. They have an ‘open’ relationship:

TONY:  […] infidelity is a fact of life. We both enjoy the occasional one-night stand. We don’t do it all the time, and we’d never bring anyone back if the other one was here. Perhaps it’s not ideal. But I think it’s realistic. I’d much rather have that than be deceitful to one another – pretending we were faithful when we weren’t.5

This arrangement is tested when Tony engages a cleaner named Robert. Greg and Robert have an affair, and after Tony walks in on them having sex, Greg announces to Tony that he loves Robert – and Tony. For Tony, ‘the whole point’ of their arrangement ‘is that we shouldn’t have to lie to each other’; but for Greg, ‘[t]he whole point is that we should stick together! And if that means we have to lie to each other, then that’s fine by me!’6

The central question is encapsulated in one of Elyot’s notebooks, held in his archive at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection:

[…] theory of an open relationship + the practice of it – the two don’t mix + leads to destruction.7

Ultimately, Tony admits to Greg that Greg is the only man he wants, but Greg can’t abide anything so ‘domestic’:

GREG: […] I still love you. I still want us to be together. But I’m not suddenly going to ask you to lay out my pipe and slippers. And I doubt that Robert will suddenly disappear into thin air.8

In the poignant final scene we gather that Tony has been unable to accept being one of Greg’s two objects of love. He has a heart-to-heart with Jürgen, a German pick-up – but neither speaks much of the other’s language. As Schubert plays on the stereo, Jürgen, himself hurt by some relationship, stammers, ‘Und … now … no more love … never!’ ‘You can’t say that,’ Tony cries, ‘I can see why you should but … no, you can’t say that.’9

A close-up of notebook listing names
Elyot’s casting ideas. Clive Mantle played Jürgen (not Jörgen) in the original production. (UBTC, KE/3/5/2, 4 of 5, p. 29)

Elyot’s voice

Like many first plays, Coming Clean feels autobiographical; Elyot admitted that he could not act in it because it ‘would have been too close to the bone.’10 Yet the play is a statement of intent. There is a sense of autobiography in all of Elyot’s writing, and his debut sounds the personal, Proustian notes of friendship, loneliness, sex, survival, music and memory that he will sound throughout his career. It has the delicate balance between comedy and tragedy seen in his later plays (he described his second play My Night with Reg as a ‘serious comedy’).11 Tony is the first in a series of guarded, obsessive, lovelorn and lonely gay protagonists. And, although not as formally inventive as RegThe Day I Stood Still (1998) and Mouth to Mouth (2001) – with these plays Elyot became a master at the manipulation of stage time, in J.B. Priestley’s league – Coming Clean skilfully employs dramatic techniques that Elyot will utilise again and again. Take, for example, his use of music to complicate the central dramatic question.

At the opening, the audience hears something clichéd: the famous Adagio of Samuel Barber’s String Quartet. Before he learns of Greg’s affair with the cleaner, Tony confesses to his friend William that Greg has been distant. William tells Tony to prepare a ‘really romantic evening,’ and ‘when [Greg] walks in, have that piece of music playing – you know, the dreary piece, the one that you both call “our tune” … the Barbirolli …’ Tony corrects him: ‘Barber.’12

Lots of couples share an ‘our tune,’ and William’s inability to remember the composer, and his characterisation of the music as ‘dreary’, immediately destabilises Tony and Greg’s.

The next scene begins with Greg and the cleaner Robert having it off – while the Adagio plays on the stereo. ‘Our tune’ has ironically – cruelly – become the soundtrack to an affair. To intensify Greg’s betrayal – sex and music – and to foreshadow that Tony and Greg’s open relationship cannot survive it, Elyot then reveals that Greg hates the Barber: ‘Would you mind if I turned this off? It’s like a fucking funeral.’13

After Tony and Greg argue the play’s central question in the wake of Tony’s discovery of the affair, Tony goes to the record collection to find something to play. When he sees that the Barber he wants is already on the turntable, there is a moment between the doomed couple. ‘Obviously, a popular choice,’ Tony says, ruefully.14

‘Our tune’ is dead.

Elyot’s notebooks reveal just how dramaturgically calculated all this is; how alive he was, even at the beginning of his writing career, to the power of subtext and allusion. Tony’s sentimental attachment to, and Greg’s rejection of, the Barber symbolise the opposing positions in the play’s argument. Contrasting Barber with the more radical and tragic figure of Schubert (whose music accompanies the final scene), Elyot wrote, ‘Barber is a musical reactionary, which fits Tony’s position (esp. as Barber was gay).’ The play’s ‘archetypal clash’ between ‘a socialist theory’ (represented by Greg, advocate of the open relationship) and a ‘reactionary lifestyle’ (represented by Tony, who cannot curb a desire for monogamy – a conservatism ‘EMBODIED IN  HIRING A CLEANER FOR FUCK’S SAKE!!!)’ is reflected by the couple’s attitudes towards the Barber – by the ways the play interrogates the Barber as a cliché.15

It’s not the point that an audience should be conscious of such layering, but that the layering should work upon the audience’s unconscious, and deepen the somewhat shallow scenario. Elyot started as he meant to go on: such attention to detail, such allusions to musical and literary worlds beyond the world of play, are hallmarks of his writing.

Front covers of Coming Clean book
Coming Clean published by Faber (1984) and Nick Hern Books (2017)

Critical homophobia

Where Coming Clean stands on the clash between lifestyles – the ‘scene’ of clubs and one-night stands on the one hand and monogamy on the other – is unclear. Elyot himself said that ‘there’s no positive answer’ to the clash, and Tony, the play’s most sympathetic character, is a fascinatingly ambiguous protagonist: Elyot’s descriptor for him as ‘reactionary’ is hardly complimentary.16 The clash is Elyot’s dramatic provocation, his specifically queer question – though many of the original reviewers were incapable of seeing this.

Irving Wardle in The Times is worth quoting at length:

My test for homosexual plots is to see how they respond to heterosexual conversion. You can get three possible results: either the story will ring as true with women as with men; or it will be so specifically homosexual as to resist the change; or it may be unmasked as a parasitic copy of a heterosexual model.

So far as plotting is concerned, Coming Clean belongs to the third category; and I resent the force of the Gay Lib movement in getting stage space for plays that would stand no chance whatever if they featured triangles of debs and stockbrokers. Mr Elyot’s chart of ‘contemporary sexual mores’ takes you straight back to the world of commercially packaged sex comedy.17

Putting aside the sexism (no such thing as gay women in Wardle’s World, or gay stockbrokers, or female stockbrokers), as well as the telling choice of the word ‘conversion,’ Wardle of course put the play into the wrong category of his three. So far as plotting and everything else about Coming Clean are concerned, it belongs to his second category, because this play by a gay playwright about gay men explores the ‘conflict between theory and practice’ in open relationships as a gay conflict.18 It doesn’t mean the play isn’t universal: Elyot recognised that his theme is explored in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which, he wrote, ‘beautifully expresses the argument between ideal + actual, love + lust, the appeal of marriage v. the appeal of promiscuity.’19

But to put Coming Clean into his second category would have required Wardle to remove heterosexual spectacles, to do something we now take for granted: give a queer play a queer reading. He would have had to interrogate the cruising in the play (‘I just popped into the cottage for a tea-time quickie’) as gay.20 The music (Barber, Village People, Voggue) as gay. The queer-bashing (William is assaulted by ‘a bit of rough trade’) as gay.21 The sex (sodomy, blow jobs, rimming) as gay. William’s hilariously camp diction (‘Loose? I expected to find half of London up there [a man’s arse]. Do you want a jammy doughnut?’) as gay.22 Tony’s inability to reconcile his feelings with Greg’s world-view, and his characterisation of parts of the gay scene as ‘disgusting, unamusing, unentertaining, mindless, sexist, repressive drivel’, as politically charged gay disputes.23

Too hard for Wardle. Homophobia was easier.24

In fact, Elyot resisted the term ‘gay writer’. He told the journalist David Benedict at the time of The Day I Stood Still, ‘Of course I am a writer, and I am gay, but that kind of characterisation is a way of belittling the writing.’25 To Time Out, he said he wanted The Day I Stood Still to be judged as a play, not a gay play:

I think that sort of categorisation is very restricting. I don’t want to be compared to other gay writers, I want to be compared to other writers. I’ve noticed recently that the ‘gay writer’ nomenclature has tended to disappear – I know this sounds terribly politically incorrect – but I find that a bit of a relief, not because I’m not proud of being gay, but I think one is taken more seriously.26

Perhaps reviews like Wardle’s still smarted – even if, in 1983, he had fought back rather magnificently:

If he had thought it through it would have been an even more radical play if it had been about a heterosexual couple – because I’ve not seen a straight play where you have the partners sleeping around, then a third person coming along and the husband saying, well, not only am I going to continue sleeping around but you’ve also got to accept that I’m in love with this other woman and I also want to continue my marriage with you. What you get in straight plays is a third person breaking it up and then an ensuing fidelity with the new person, which is not what my play was about.27

Typed programme for Bush Theatre
Bush programme (UBTC, KE/3/5/4)

A remarkable letter

Wardle’s review is, of course, little more than tedious bigotry, and in the archive is a response to Coming Clean of much greater interest to any student of Elyot, or of the history of British playwriting.

In his Introduction to a collection of his plays, Elyot says that Peggy Ramsay, the famous play agent who read countless first plays over her career, was in tears at the Bush when she saw the final scene between Tony and Jürgen: ‘That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.’28

What Elyot does not mention is a remarkable letter Ramsay wrote to him before she visited the Bush but after she’d read the play, in which she acknowledged his competence as a playwright, and the sexual frankness in his writing, but reproached him for a ‘holding back over exactly how people behave in these circumstances.’ She saw in Elyot a restraint, a cowardice, and in a handwritten addendum, eulogised Thomas Mann for his preparedness, presumably in Death in Venice,

to plunge into the abyss of filth & deviation, & the result was a kind of purity, since NOTHING IS DISGUSTING – the only disgusting thing is NOT to face the truth; right down to the lowest depths! This takes great courage, & you need to explore it.

Ramsay did not think Coming Clean a good play, did not think it art. Her letter, entirely encouraging, was a cri de cœur to the first-time playwright: ‘if you write another Play about homosexuality I beg you to make it deeper.’29

How to survive a plague

In the 254th edition of Gay News, dated 25 November 1982, there is a review by Roger Baker of Coming Clean that takes a similar line to Ramsay. Baker praises Elyot for his plotting and characterisations, and condemns Wardle for missing the point:

the handling and resolution of the crisis are expressed in terms which are uniquely gay. Debs and stockbrokers, on or off stage do not, indeed cannot, talk, act, think or see their lives as Greg and Tony do.

But Baker says that ‘ultimately [Coming Clean] is slight, lacks weight.’ Like Ramsay, he encourages the first-time playwright ‘to extend his undoubted ability and vision next time.’30

In the 255th edition of Gay News, dated 9 December 1982, there is an article titled ‘DISEASE FEARS HIT UK: Prepare for shocks in ’83’:

BRITISH GAY MEN had better prepare themselves for some major shocks in the months ahead. They will be under a double-edged attack from both disease and media coverage if recent American experience is repeated here.31

It would take Elyot twelve years to write his second play My Night with Reg. It was finally produced in 1994, and though it shares many qualities with Coming Clean, it is a much more sophisticated play. In it, Elyot faces the truth and extends his vision, just as Ramsay and Gay News had hoped he would. But its subject is tragic: the lives and deaths of gay men during the age of Aids.

In 2004, Elyot looked back on the final scene of Coming Clean and said, ‘it has an elegiac quality – in retrospect, almost a sense of foreboding.’32 There were no revivals during the worst of the Aids years, or during Elyot’s lifetime, though at a 1997 gala to celebrate 25 years of the Bush (at which I was present) a scene was performed by the original cast. ‘I was pleased to discover that it still packs a punch,’ Elyot said in 1998, even if it felt to him ‘a sort of period piece’.33

In 2017, the play was successfully revived at the King’s Head Theatre, London, and as I write this, there is a revival at Turbine Theatre, London. Of the King’s Head revival, Exeunt Magazine found the play’s central question – ‘Can you ever really have your cake and fuck it (and the rest of the bakery)’ – ‘as current now as it was 35 years ago.’34

An autobiographical first play that announced a major talent – a play about gay sex and infidelity that premiered before everything changed for gay men – had survived both critical homophobia and Aids, and its pre-Aids question had become pertinent again.

This work was inspired and developed through the generous support of the Kevin Elyot Award at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection.

1 Kevin Elyot, Introduction to Four Plays (London: Nick Hern Books, 2004), pp. ix-x; Elyot to Christopher Edwards, ‘More Promising Playwrights’, Plays and Players, March 1983, pp. 23-4 (p. 24), University of Bristol Theatre Collection (UBTC), KE/3/5/15.

2 UBTC, KE/3/5/3.

3 London Theatre Record, November 4-17 1982, pp. 615-16, UBTC, KE 3/5/6.

4 Elyot, Introduction to Four Plays, pp. ix-x; UBTC, KE/3/5/13.

5 Elyot, Coming Clean (London: Faber, 1984), pp. 37, 49.

6 Ibid, p. 58.

7 UBTC, KE/3/5/2, 3 of 5, p. 59.

8 Elyot, Coming Clean, p. 64.

9 Ibid, pp. 71-2.

10 Elyot to Edwards, p. 24.

11 Elyot to Sue Summers, ‘Day follows Night with Reg’, Daily Telegraph [n.d.: interview at the time of The Day I Stood Still, 1998], UBTC, KE/3/23/5.

12 Elyot, Coming Clean, p. 50.

13 Ibid, p. 52.

14 Ibid, p. 65.

15 UBTC, KE/3/5/2, 3 of 5, p. 59.

16 Elyot to Bob Workman, ‘Kevin Elyot Comes Clean’, Gay News, 255, 9-22 December 1982, pp. 38-9 (p. 39), UBTC, KE/3/5/6.

17 Irving Wardle, Times, 8 November 1982, [n.p.], UBTC, KE/3/5/6.

18 UBTC, KE/3/5/2, 2 of 5, p. 95.

19 Ibid, p. 95.

20 Elyot, Coming Clean, p. 39.

21 Ibid, p. 39.

22 Ibid, p. 13.

23 Ibid, p. 46.

24 Intriguingly, Wardle wrote in 1973 a play called The Houseboy with a scenario not dissimilar to Elyot’s; its television adaptation was broadcast a few months before Coming Clean’s premiere.

25 Elyot to David Benedict, ‘National debut? Time to put the record, er, straight’, Independent, 14 January 1998.

26 Elyot to Jane Edwardes, ‘Life after Reg’, Time Out [n.d.: interview at the time of The Day I Stood Still, 1988], UBTC, KE/3/23/5.

27 Elyot to Edwards, p. 24.

28 Elyot, Introduction to Four Plays, p. x.

29 Margaret Ramsay to Elyot, 17 November 1992, UBTC, KE/3/5/13. Sadly, this letter does not appear in Colin Chambers’s Peggy to her Playwrights: The Letters of Margaret Ramsay, Play Agent, a book I recommend.

30 Roger Baker, ‘Coming Clean’, Gay News, 254, 25 November – 8 December 1982, p. 29, UBTC, KE/3/5/6.

31 Bob Workman, ‘Disease Fears Hit UK: Prepare for shocks in ’83’, Gay News, 255, 9 December – 22 December 1982, p. 3, UBTC, KE/3/5/6.

32 Elyot, Introduction to Four Plays, p. x.

33 Elyot to Edwardes.

34 Francesca Peschier, Exeunt Magazine, 31 July 2017.

Artist-in-Residence Placement: an introduction to the project & a working relationship with the archive as a resource

Hello, my name is Bobby and I’m a third year joint honours student in the Department of Theatre and Performance, and the Department of Film and TV here at the University of Bristol. As a part of my final semester with the University, I have chosen to work on a unit called ‘professional development in theatre and performance’; a unit that is designed for students to connect with organisations outside of the academic context of the course, and to learn to develop soft skills relevant to working in industry as an artist and creative. After conversing with the brilliant staff at the Theatre Collection, I chose to work as a Artist-in-Residence with them. The project aims to create a performative installation work at the end of an archive-based research and experimentation period.

As a third year Theatre and Film student, I’ve been lucky enough to have been exposed to the archive in previous units and have gained an understanding for both how their systems work, but also the process of thought required to interrogate material and to carefully piece together the histories of productions, projects and people. A previous project titled ‘Awaiting its Fate’ was performed last year at the Bristol Old Vic and was designed by myself. Aimed at blurring the history of the theatre into the buildings’ foundations, I worked closely with archival materials to inform a soundscape of an auction for the building in 1942 and the final performance allowed audiences to imagine that they were listening through the walls of the BOV at events that happened in the 40s. It was the first time where I had found the value and interest of the cross section between archival materials and technology; the blurred lines and creative possibilities that it holds as a way of reinvigorating once forgotten material, but also showcasing to others the capabilities that the archive itself holds.

Production image of Awaiting its Fate. Image Credit: Bobby Joynes

My own passion in theatre is rooted in set and AV design. I have experimented with technologically mediated spaces and performances that utilised elements like projection and three dimensional audial soundscapes as a way of world building but also informing creative choices to highlights relationships, themes and motifs. I strongly feel that a playful perspective on bringing technology into performance is a brilliantly versatile way of doing this, while also allowing that traditional ‘magic’ held at the theatre to continue.

Before I pursue a postgraduate degree in performance design, I’m taking time to broaden my understanding of how we can use the past as a way of informing our future artistic expressions, and how archives such as the theatre collection aren’t just valuable for researchers, but also for active and freelance artists. During the first few months on my placement, I have taken time to dig deep into materials otherwise unknown to me.

Beginning with an interest and past experience in analogue photography, I began there, exploring key individuals that may have led lives as photographers. This is where I discovered John Vickers, an experimentalist photographer right from the age of 12 when he picked up his first ever camera at a church jumble sale.


John Vickers, self-portrait. Image credit: University of Bristol Theatre Collection (JV/1/6/2/127)

The life and work of Vickers is extensive, and the Theatre Collection’s archive of his prints and negatives drew a kind of curiosity out of me, and led to my choice to centre my installation around his work. Namely, there is a fascinating collection of glass print negatives from early in his life that left me speechless when they were uncovered. Described in the Theatre Collection catalogue as 27 monochromatic exposures, what I discovered was something far more amazing. As I begin my experimentation process with these prints, I’m excited to not be able to see what unique twists and turns are in my creation process. It’s a brilliant example as to why rabbit holes in the archive aren’t so bad after all, in fact they can sometimes be quite the opposite and find you somewhere you would never expect.

Keep checking the Theatre Collection’s blog page for updates about this exciting project!


Staff visits to Bristol Museum and BECC

Lucy Allen, Archive Assistant at the Theatre Collection, discusses two recent professional visits to Bristol heritage institutions.

In the four months since Joanna Gauld and I have joined the team as Archive Assistants, we have already been extremely lucky to be invited on two visits: the first, to the Conservation Department of Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, and the second, to the British Empire and Commonwealth Collection (BECC) at Bristol Archives.

Conservation at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

In December we were kindly invited by Eleanor Hasler, paper conservator at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, to a tour of the museum’s conservation department. This was a fascinating insight into the world of conservation, as we visited labs dedicated to objects, paintings and paper conservation, and were able to peek at the projects underway in each.

Of particular interest was a project to conserve an enormous album of building plans belonging to Bristol Archives – one of more than 300 in the collection – dating from 1911-1912. The album included plans for many well-known Bristol buildings, among them plans for the Bristol Hippodrome designed by Frank Matcham. We listened to a talk from Aina Berenguer, the conservator who had been working on the project, explaining the four months of work she had put into the project – documenting, cleaning, flattening and repairing the plans.

Aina Berenguer, the conservator of the building plans. Photograph credit: Daly, R., 2023, Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.

Other highlights we saw were a number of Japanese woodcut prints, with Eleanor Hasler providing some insight into the creation of these artworks, their historical context and how they came to be at the museum. Eleanor explained how at the time of production, the durability of the woodcuts meant they could be reused to make countless cheap prints. These now highly valuable prints were once worth about the same as a bowl of rice!

A final treat was a trip down to the art store beneath the museum, where we witnessed the hundreds of paintings, sculptures and other artworks held there by the museum when they are not on display. It was fascinating to how the museum ensures that these artworks are stored responsibly, and protects them for a future date when they will be brought back into the public eye.

British Empire and Commonwealth Collection

Our second trip followed in early February, when alongside colleagues from Special Collections, we were invited by archivist Jayne Pucknell to visit the British Empire and Commonwealth Collection at Bristol Archives.

Jayne explained the background to the collection, and how it came to be held by Bristol Archives after the closure of the former British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in 2008. She had selected a few key items from the collection for us to view, and explained to us the history behind these pieces. These included a selection of photographs taken by J A Green (Jonathan Adagogo Green), born in the late 19th century and believed to be the first professional photographer of Nigerian birth. Jayne pointed out Green’s strategic use of initials in his business proceedings, which obscured his Nigerian identity and played a large part in his ability to work with both colonial and indigenous clientele.

Palm nut cracking, New Calabar by J. A. Green, c.1900 (ref: 2003/174/1/24). Photograph credit: Bristol Archives: British Empire & Commonwealth Collection.

Whilst the J. A. Green photographs are an invaluable insight into life in colonial Nigeria from an indigenous perspective, many items in the collection depict life from the standpoint of the coloniser. For example, we also saw a late 19th century album of photos taken by a plantation owner in Jamaica. Many of these photographs depicted local Jamaicans in posed scenes, and often drew upon reductive stereotypes in order to appeal to a colonial audience.

Eight boys in a field eating watermelons, c.1860 (ref: 2005/001/151/1). Photograph credit: Bristol Archives: British Empire & Commonwealth Collection.

We also viewed a 20th century album of paintings by a woman living in a Prisoner of War camp under Japanese rule in China. These scenes gave the misleading impression of a pleasant environment and of positive relationships between prisoners and guards. The reason for this became clear to us when Jayne pointed out that, had the paintings instead depicted the harsh realities of prisoner life, they would undoubtedly have been confiscated. Photography within the camp was forbidden; sketching and painting were the only options available to record the experience, even if they must be done from a falsely cheery perspective. One sketch, depicting a guard from the camp, hinted at the harsher reality, reading: “pestered me to do his portrait, was advised to do so less something bad might happen to me”.

Final thoughts

These visits were both wonderful experiences as they allowed us to gain insight into the collections, work environments and roles of our colleagues within the heritage industry. It’s always such a treat to see “behind the scenes” and to hear about collections directly from the people who work so closely with them. We are extremely thankful to Eleanor Hasler, Jayne Pucknell, and the teams at Bristol Museums and Bristol Archives for generously inviting us to visit their sites and engage with their collections.

On Kevin Elyot and My Night with Reg by Samuel Adamson

Samuel Adamson is the current recipient of the Kevin Elyot Award, an annual award given to support a writer-in-residence at the Theatre Collection. It is given in memory of the renowned playwright, screenwriter and Bristol Drama alumnus, Kevin Elyot (1951-2014) and the influence he has had on writing and the Arts. The award has been generously funded by an endowment given to the University by members of Kevin’s family.  The endowment was gifted along with the Kevin Elyot Archive, which is held at the Theatre Collection, and comprises scripts, correspondence, manuscripts and publicity material detailing Elyot’s working process from initial idea to finished product.

One summer’s day in 1995, I met my agent Sebastian Born for the first time. After our meeting in his office in London’s Holland Park, he joined me on my walk to the Underground and on the way told me something about his client Kevin Elyot’s My Night with Reg. This play – which had premiered to huge acclaim at the Royal Court Theatre in March 1994, was still doing great business in the West End, was in development as a film for the BBC, and was attracting interest from around the world – had been rejected by Hampstead, the new-writing theatre that had commissioned it.

Sebastian is a phlegmatic man, and over the years I’ve interpreted his story as a lesson to me, the smug young playwright who’d just secured an agent. The theatre is fickle. Some people will like your work, some won’t. Nobody knows anything. Be philosophical about the inevitable disappointments if you can.

Still, there was a faint trace of ‘sucks to Hampstead’ in Sebastian’s tone that at the time I relished as I’d seen My Night with Reg three times and considered it a work of genius.

A handbill advertising the play 'My Night with Reg' by Kevin Elyot
Handbill for Royal Court Theatre premiere, 1994. (University of Bristol Theatre Collection, KE/3/19/3)

My memories of Roger Michell’s original production are vivid. It starred David Bamber, Anthony Calf and John Sessions as Guy, John and Daniel, old university friends and gay men living in the shadow of Aids. I remember Bamber’s perfectly timed delivery of the play’s first double entendre: ‘I was just stiffening some egg whites.’ I remember the friends roguishly raising their glasses to ‘sodomy’. And I remember, after Aids had killed both the title character and Guy, the terror behind Daniel’s line to John, ‘I’m suddenly very tired,’ and John’s deceptively simple response, which, from Anthony Calf, was in fact a primal scream: ‘I’m pretty tired, too.’

I also remember my excitement as I realised that Reg, Daniel’s boyfriend – who like Samuel Beckett’s Godot never appears – has slept with every character except Guy, the self-conscious single man at whose flat-warming the story begins. Whether Reg has passed on HIV to the others is ambiguous. What is unambiguous is that Guy, who harbours a secret love for John and barely sleeps with anyone, contracts HIV after being raped in Lanzarote by ‘a mortician from Swindon.’ In one of the play’s deftest structural conceits, the character who does not have a night with Reg is the only character who dies.

As the 2023 recipient of the Kevin Elyot Award, given annually to support a writer-in-residence at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection where Elyot’s papers are housed, I’ve learned that Elyot was proud of this superior craftsmanship. ‘[T]he STRUCTURE is a COUP!’ he wrote in one notebook – and the play does indeed have two coups de théâtre when time jumps forward and Guy’s flat-warming becomes a wake: first for Reg, then for Guy himself.[i] Elyot storms his comedy of manners with tragedy, and it is surprising, thrilling and heartbreaking. Reg is a funny play about serious things: the randomness of disease, the necessity of lies, the pain of unrequited love – and the cruel threat to gay men’s sexual freedom after the liberations of the 1970s (the subject of Elyot’s first play, Coming Clean, which premiered in 1982, just before the Aids crisis).

Two front covers of playscript 'My Night with Reg' by Kevin Elyot
Play scripts published by Nick Hern Books to coincide with the play’s West End transfer in November 1994 (L), and with its twentieth-anniversary Donmar Warehouse revival in July 2014 (R)

In 2004, Sebastian Born retired from agenting, and at his farewell party at a bar in the Portobello Road, I noticed Elyot. I wanted to approach him and say how much I admired Reg, as well as Coming Clean and the two other plays I’d seen in their original productions, The Day I Stood Still (National Theatre, 1998) and Mouth to Mouth (Royal Court, 2001). I wanted to say how much I was looking forward to his new play Forty Winks, due to open at the Royal Court that October. I wanted to say I was looking forward to many more plays.

Unfortunately, like Guy in Reg, I was too self-conscious to act on my desires – though I went to Forty Winks, which, sadly, was the last of Elyot’s plays to be produced in his lifetime (he died in 2014 at the age of 62; his sixth play Twilight Song premiered posthumously in 2017). Forty Winks is a troubling piece, inspired by the Don Juan legend and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s extraordinary 1968 film Theorem. Although these references are explicit in the text, most critics missed them, and felt that Elyot was repeating himself. It was his least successful play.

Handbill for 'My Night with Reg'
Handbill for West End transfer with original Royal Court cast, November 1994. L to R: Kenneth MacDonald (Benny), Roger Frost (Bernie), David Bamber (Guy), John Sessions (Daniel), Anthony Calf (John), Joe Duttine (Eric) – yes, the allusions to Elton John (and Éric Rohmer) are deliberate. (UBTC, KE/3/19/3)

If Isaiah Berlin is right that writers are either foxes who range over a large landscape, or hedgehogs who stay close to home, then Elyot, like his hero Proust, was a hedgehog. In the last ten years of his life, he adapted nine Agatha Christie novels for ITV and Christopher Isherwood’s Christopher and His Kind for the BBC – all to considerable acclaim. But it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that he was hurt by the failure of Forty Winks, and by the critical insinuation that he lacked the ambition of a fox. His papers are full of reminders to disregard critics, and one is striking: ‘FORGET fashion, what’s expected, comedy per se, rivals – WRITE what’s true, what’s true to you, ignore EVERYBODY, write a TRAGEDY, reach for the truth of life, aim high, write a masterpiece. Amaze + surprise them.’[ii]

I think Elyot wrote three masterpieces: My Night with Reg, The Day I Stood Still and Mouth to Mouth. Yes, they plough the same territory over and over: loneliness, friendship, music, memory, the passing of youth, betrayal, guilt, mortality, time. But these are the truths of life, and I can’t think of a writer I admire who, in the search for ultimate meaning, does not write about them.

At the Royal Court’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations, Roger Michell said of Reg that it arrived on his desk ‘almost perfectly formed: I cannot remember a single significant change that we made either during preparation or rehearsal. It is that odd thing, a most beautifully crafted and constructed modern play…’[iii]

Elyot’s papers reveal the sweat behind that perfection. He began the play as a sequel to Coming Clean, and it took him over a decade to let that idea fall away and find something new – a decade during which Aids changed everything for gay men, including Elyot, who told Gay Times in 1998, ‘One of the starting points for writing Reg was personal experience. I’ve suffered in similar ways to other gay men of my generation, experienced the same grief, loss and trauma.’[iv] He wrote many drafts, and my reading of the relevant correspondence is that Hampstead Theatre’s rejection of the play had a lot to do with ‘draft bog’ – that indissoluble problem in new writing. For a playwright, old drafts are discarded clay on the floor. But some early readers, even if they are the playwright’s champions, find their feet stuck in the bog.

Thankfully, Roger Michell and the Royal Court saw My Night with Reg as it stood before them, sculpted to perfection. 2024 is the play’s thirtieth anniversary, and the tenth anniversary of Elyot’s death. I hope it brings a revival of at least one of his six exquisite plays.

Headshot of Kevin Elyot leaning on elbow with hand held next to face
Kevin Elyot in 2007. Image credit: Phil Fisk

[i] University of Bristol Theatre Collection, KE/3/19/1, Book 1 of 6, p. 105.

[ii] UBTC, KE/3/26/1, Book 2 of 3, p. 58.

[iii] Roger Michell, in programme for Royal Court Theatre ‘Look Back: 50 Readings, 50 Writers, 50 Years’, My Night with Reg, 9 March 2006, UBTC, KE/3/19/11 (2 of 2).

[iv] Kevin Elyot to James Cary Parkes, ‘A comedy of terrors’, Gay Times, January 1998, pp. 16-17 (p. 17), UBTC, KE/3/23/5.

Archives – A Dynamic Living Body: A View from a New Archive Assistant

Benjamin Park, Archive Assistant discusses his first impressions as a new member of the Theatre Collection and what he has learned from his colleagues around him. 

I joined the Theatre Collection during the middle of September as a maternity cover for one of the Archive Assistants. It is the first time I have worked in an archive and the past couple of months has been an insightful period, full of discoveries and curiosities.

I was not a stranger to archives before this, and neither a stranger to the Theatre Collection. My background was varied, and many threads seemed to lead me here. Prior to this role I was a Library Assistant, working just up the hill from the Theatre Collection at other sites within the University of Bristol. That was my first experience professionally working with collections. During and before this point, I was a student of literature and most recently a PhD researcher writing on Samuel Beckett. This necessitated many visits to archives and gave me an understanding of their value and function from the perspective of a user. The final thread leading me to this archive was my previous work as an amateur playwright and director in Edinburgh for a span of two years.  That experience concreted my respect and admiration for the ephemeral art of theatre. I first discovered the Theatre Collection itself during an oral history research project I undertook with the university. During this project, my fellow researchers and I spent a day in the archive and were introduced to some of their brilliant objects. Later, I interviewed the former Director of the Theatre Collection, Jo Elsworth, in which she showed me a digitised piece of toast from 1994 held by the archive. This innovative piece of marketing was created by Julie Flowers and Rosalind Howell for their performance Grill. I never stopped thinking about that toast and hoped one day to work closer with the Collection.

A Piece of Toast at the National Review of Live Art 1994 by Julie Flowers and Rosalind Howell. [Theatre Collection Reference: RLAP/G/94] A 3D Model of the Toast can be found on Sketchfab.  

Fortune was in my favour, and here I am. These months have taught me a lot about archives and collections, and many things that I could only glean hints of before as a user. In my first few weeks, I was introduced to the current team of archivists, and each guided me in their own way to the tips, tricks, and skills required to be a great archivist, as they all are. Jill Sullivan was of particular help in my training and led me to discover the first incredible idiosyncrasy that separates work in an archive collection from my previous work in a library collection, that being the importance of the working mind of an archivist.

As Jill and I would be working on a retrieval together, going through a list of items that a researcher had requested, I would see a sudden flash in her mind as she remembered a particular item of special relevance to the research. An item, tucked away in a folder, in a box amongst hundreds of other boxes.

I would come to learn that the primary and most important role of an archive is to protect and preserve materials to be safely stored in perpetuity. The safety of the item comes first, the next (huge) task is the project of cataloguing so that these items are known, publicly facing, and of easy discovery to researchers and enthusiasts alike. However, the second part of this process takes time, time to secure funding and resources for the detailed cataloguing of these unique collections. Therefore, in archives across the world there are items that are safely stored, waiting for the appropriate funding and allotment of time to be catalogued onto a public-facing database. Bundles of letters, marginalia in private books, early sketches and drawings of obscure artists, and countless other items lay safe on the shelves of many archives, almost a secret. To mitigate this situation, the Theatre Collection currently has a project to box list any uncatalogued collections and it creates web pages and collection-level catalogue descriptions for the public of these collections. But what is most striking to me, is that the collections are intimately known by staff; many of these items are ‘catalogued’ in the working mind of the archivist. At the Theatre Collection, when a person makes an enquiry to explore our holdings and search for material related to their research, in addition to the catalogue, the importance of this mind comes to the fore, unlocking items that may, just possibly, hold the long-searched-for secret to their question. Only three months in, it will probably take me quite a few many more months, if not years, to get close to the working knowledge of some of the archivists here.

Although in that time, what I have discovered has been brilliant and fascinating. And I have learned that that working knowledge can only be obtained by getting lost in the archive yourself. Each week, the researchers, students, historians, working dramaturgs, and other enthusiasts have their items retrieved for their visits. This is one of the highlights of my week. I must always fight against my own curiosity, to retrieve the items in a timely manner, and to not become lost in the interest of their topic. And it is a fight I often almost lose. From Laurence Olivier’s gloves worn in The Entertainer, to Sir Henry Irving’s preparation book for the 1885 production of Faust, to Julia Trevelyan Oman’s designs for chocolate box lids, to hundreds of playbills from the late 18th and 19th centuries, there is an endless stream of wonderful distractions and discoveries during the process of retrievals. The most recent discovery placed before me was the conceptual designs by Ralph Adron for La Creation Du Monde – a ballet by Darius Milhaud which outlines the creation of the world according to African mythologies.

[Conceptual Design by Ralph Adron. Theatre Collection Reference: BTC71/1/6/1/4]

[Conceptual Design by Ralph Adron. Theatre Collection Reference: BTC71/1/6/1/8]

These were brought to my attention during this most recent month, in which the distractions and discoveries of the archive found further use as I took more responsibility in my role managing the Theatre Collection’s social media communications. With immense help and support from the working minds of these archivists, and particularly Laura Dow, the Theatre Collection has shared a range from our wonderful items to our social medias and recently launched Instagram. Two of these items were the above Ralph Adron paintings. This past Monday, as I returned the items that had been taken out for use in the previous week, I picked up these paintings, and felt an instant subconscious thrill at the prospect of what others lay in the drawer they were to be returned to. And as I carefully found the correct position to return each painting to, I discovered a whole host of other fantastic creatures and designs inspired by African creation mythology, and I felt very fortunate have the job that I have.

There is still much more for me to learn in my time here with the Theatre Collection. But as a first lesson I was glad it was this. Namely, the discovery of the living quality of an archive. At times there seems to be an unfortunate public image that archives are rows of dusty shelves filled with untouched tomes. This could not be further from the truth of the true nature of an archive. An archive is a dynamic a living body of materials that must be set in motion as they are explored by researchers and the priceless stories and information contained within them spiral outwards into our collective cultural narrative. And this character of an archive is embodied in the working mind of an archivist, and their particular, irreplaceable relationship to the materials for which they care.


Happy World Digital Preservation Day!

Emma Hancox, Digital Archivist writes about World Digital Preservation Day and our recent steps in digital preservation.

Today (2nd November) is World Digital Preservation Day: an international date to celebrate digital preservation. This year’s theme is ‘Digital Preservation: A Concerted Effort’ and the focus is on the interactions and relationships that make for success in this area. Digital preservation is a key part of the work we do in Special Collections and Theatre Collection to ensure our researchers have access to important digital collections now and in the future.

When you think of archives, old handwritten documents such as letters, diaries, minute books or even a photograph album probably come to mind. Materials such as these created in hard copy in the past (which form a large part of our collections) are almost always created digitally nowadays. Organisations and individuals who approach us to enquire about depositing their archives are increasingly offering us material in digital form and it is imperative that we collect and preserve this material to have a comprehensive archive in the future.

As well as these original or so-called born-digital materials, we hold digital copies or digital surrogates of some of the physical material in our collections. These may be digital photographs of the hard copy material we hold or digital audio or video files from carriers such as cassette or video tapes which have been digitised because of their fragility and the risk of loss.

Although digital archives are still archives, and there are many similarities with our physical collections in terms of how we manage them, they have their own distinct set of challenges. It is very easy to create massive amounts of digital files and to save multiple copies of the same thing. Traditionally archivists appraise collections to select the material suitable for preservation, but this task becomes much more difficult and time consuming in a digital environment. Being able to validate files and check their integrity (whether or not they have changed over time) is vital as we need to be able to demonstrate the authenticity of the materials in our care. File format obsolescence and software dependencies are other potentially problematic areas. A particular file format may be more at risk than another and we cannot always ensure that we will have access to the correct software to be able to make a particular file accessible.

So what are we doing to improve our capacity to deal with digital archives? Towards the end of 2018 I was recruited as the first Digital Archivist and the first member of staff with a completely digital preservation-focused role. Since then, we have joined the Digital Preservation Coalition meaning we are part of an international digital preservation community and network, which is a brilliant opportunity for training, reciprocal support and learning. With the support of the DPC we participated in a booksprint in 2019, which enabled us to write the digital preservation policy that underpins our everyday decision making and an accompanying case study. 2019 was also the year we acquired Preservica as our digital preservation system and since then we have been familiarising ourselves with different types of ingest workflows and ingesting collections with the aim of making them accessible online via Universal Access.

In 2021 we were fortunate to be successful in our application to be one of the partners in the Bridging the Digital Gap scheme run by The National Archives making it possible for us to have a Digital Archives Trainee working with us. Our trainee progressed to the role of Digital Archives Assistant following the traineeship and his work has enabled us to expand our capabilities in terms of the amount of material ingested, compiling a digital asset register, being able to experiment with more complex workflows, using Python to assist with tasks as well as expand into other areas such as web archiving and the consideration of issues around the management of 3D data.

World Digital Preservation Day gives us the opportunity to look back at what we have achieved so far and to think about our future steps. It also reminds us that we are part of an international community facing similar challenges and obstacles and that sharing with each other is the key to overcoming them.

Digitising for the new virtual museum: The Uncertain Space

As the Digitisation Officer at the Theatre Collection, I’ve been working on various funded projects that have allowed me to explore and test different 3D capture techniques, including using a DSLR and a 3D model building application to create 3D versions of items in the collection. For example, I was involved in the ‘Making A Scene’ project where I digitised set models from the Bristol Old Vic archive. I photographed and created 3D versions of set model pieces from ‘Babes in the Wood’ (2000), which could then be used in an AR environment for participants to engage with and understand the process of organising a theatre production.

More recently, I’ve been working as part of the team 3D scanning objects for The Uncertain Space, a virtual university museum, where items from across the university’s collection can be explored in one place.

Initially, I was provided with a list of items that needed 3D scanning. Working with my colleague in Library Services, we divided up the scanning work and grouped objects from different departments together.  We each contacted the various departments involved to gain access to the material and arrange times and locations for the scanning to take place.

I began by scanning the items on the list that were held at the Theatre Collection. However, some of these items were particularly tricky to scan due to their textural qualities, including shiny and reflective surfaces.  Different capture techniques were implemented depending on the items being scanned, as the two approaches I use have different benefits depending on the qualities of the item. The items scanned included objects discovered under the Theatre Royal auditorium during excavation works (ref no. BOV/12/5) and additional archaeological findings discovered under Theatre Royal auditorium (ref no. BOV/12/6).

Findings discovered under Theatre Royal auditorium

Another item scanned was the ‘brick on wheels’ (ref no. WSI/UNCA/11) from the archive of the arts organisation, Welfare State International (WSI). It was made by John Fox, one of the founders of WSI, in response to the Arts Council’s ‘Housing the Arts’ (HTA) programme in the 1970s.  HTA was funding capital projects to improve and construct new buildings to showcase art and performances.  John didn’t want funding for ‘bricks and mortar’, but rather a vehicle that could take WSI’s work around the country to share performance more widely.  John’s request with the ‘brick on wheels’ was presented at the committee meeting, and suffice to say, WSI got the funding they needed to get a vehicle! 3D model of the ‘brick on wheels’.

In addition to the Theatre Collection, I also visited other university departments to scan objects.  I had the opportunity to spend the day at School of Earth Sciences, where we scanned a range of objects from their collection. This included fossilised items, a piece of malachite, 3D large maps and animal skeletons.

Arrangements were also made to visit the University’s Botanic Gardens. A range of capture equipment was taken to the Botanic Gardens to see if a vasculum, a container used for collecting plants and whitebeam tree branch could be captured on location.

Vasculum at the Botanic Gardens
Whitebeam at the Botanic Gardens

I had the chance to work in one of the greenhouses using the Artec Leo scanner and DSLR camera, using both capture techniques to see if a usable model could be created. When these files were returned to the Theatre Collection and processed it was identified that a different capture set up would be needed. It was then arranged to get the items and bring them to the photography studio, where I could suspend the vasculum and fix the strap in place so it didn’t move during the capture of the item.

Vasculum captured in the photography studio

The whitebeam was also lit in the studio and recaptured using the DSLR camera, as the fine detail of the plant was not possible to capture using the Artec scanner.

Whitebeam captured in the photography studio

I also worked with different collection specialists, including the Public Art Coordinator, and arranged to visit the Hiatt Baker Halls of Residence to capture an installed Sarah Staton print. The print was captured and the files checked, although a second trip was required to ensure reflections and light falling onto the framed print were blocked and not visible in the final digitised copy. The work created by the young participants involved in the project was scanned to be included in the virtual museum, adding another element to The Uncertain Space.

The project included lots of experimentation and learning using both techniques of photogrammetry and structured light scanning, as well as finding ways to manipulate light. As with all projects, it would have been beneficial to have extra time to continue capturing and processing models, including finding ways to capture shiny objects, such as the mirror curtain fragments.  But it was such a great experience to work with staff from different departments across the University, who were excited to share their knowledge and support the project.

I really enjoy the dynamic aspect of the virtual museum and everything the experience includes, such as the 3D models, photographs of collection material, images of the public art, scans of new material created by the participants and video elements. I feel the ability to move through the space and interact with the different elements, as well as hearing the audio information and opinions, adds to the virtual museum experience.

You can visit the virtual museum and the first exhibition by using a laptop, PC or mobile device via The Uncertain Space webpage.  Alternatively, you can download the app onto a phone or VR headset.  There are also VR headsets available onsite for anyone to view the exhibition, please get in touch and book a visit to the Theatre Collection or Special Collections.

You can read more about the making of The Uncertain Space and its first exhibition on the blogs of our colleagues from Library Research Support and Special Collections

The Irving Family: Lives Beyond Theatre

Over the past six months, a generous private donation has made possible the cataloguing of BTC30: The Irving Family papers. Donated in 2006, with a recent addition of papers kindly donated by the family of Sir Henry Irving’s grand-daughter, Lady Elizabeth Brunner, this collection spans four generations and 140 years of the legendary Irving family and documents their place in theatre history. Through the collection we gain an insight into the business of theatre, the minutiae of running a theatre, designing for theatre and film and researching theatre history. At the same time, we witness the transition of theatre from risqué demi-monde to cultural powerhouse, capable of catapulting its exponents to stardom with the right role and even the birth of film as a medium. We also get a glimpse of the people behind the celebrity and witness the breakdown of marriages, the grief over the early death of a son and the struggles of subsequent generations to reconcile themselves to the long shadows cast by their most famous forebear.

BTC30/2/1/17/16: Sir Henry Irving as Mephistopheles – drawing for a menu card for the Irving Banquet at the Edinburgh Pen and Pencil Club, 1 September 1887

The figure of Sir Henry Irving arguably marks the apogee of the rise of the great actor-manager, becoming the first actor to be knighted for his theatrical work.  His papers in the Irving Family Collection mainly deal with the minutiae of making theatre, comprising legal agreements over the rights and commissioning of pieces and Lord Chamberlain’s licenses for the performance of specific plays as well as theatre licenses and wines and spirit sale licenses (BTC30/2/2/1). And yet amongst these seemingly mundane papers there are glimpses into Victorian popular culture at its height. An agreement over the transfer of rights to the music for a production of Macbeth in 1888 (BTC30/2/1/31) directly connects three legends of Victorian popular culture. The composer for this production was Arthur Sullivan, most famous of course for his operatic collaborations with W.S. Gilbert, and the role of Lady Macbeth was played by Ellen Terry, Henry Irving’s leading lady from 1878 to 1902 and one of the most famous actresses of the age. So electrifying was her performance on the opening night, that John Singer Sargent allegedly left the theatre and immediately began work on a portrait of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, which now hangs in the Tate (‘Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth‘, John Singer Sargent, 1889 | Tate). And so, this one agreement brings together composer, actress and artist, uniting the worlds of music, theatre and art in one single document.

The collection also reveals the darker side of Sir Henry’s acting celebrity. Although he reached, arguably, the height of Victorian society, Sir Henry’s decision to pursue an acting career caused an irretrievable breakdown in his marriage. Although we might consider that the conservative Victorians disapproved of divorce, BTC30/3/2/1 reveals the ways that the Irvings negotiated this disapproval, organising a formal separation which covered Florence Irving’s maintenance, the custody, schooling and visitation of their children and even Florence’s concern that Sir Henry’s friendship with another woman would, despite their separation, reflect on her.

BTC30/5/7/1 Henry Brodribb Irving and the cast of the Oxford University Dramatic Society in As You Like It

The collection reveals the long shadow that Sir Henry Irving cast, and the very different ways that his descendants chose to forge their own paths. Sir Henry’s elder son Henry Brodribb Irving began acting in student productions for the Oxford University Dramatic Society before beginning, despite his father’s reservations, his own acting career. Henry tried to forge a separate path from his famous father, although on a parallel track; founding his own acting troupe, which toured South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, before taking over the lease of the Savoy Theatre and following his father’s lead as actor manager. He also reprised some of his father’s productions, including The Lyons Mail and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (although he used a new dramatic adaptation by J. Comyns Carr, rather than the infamous Richard Mansfield version that his father had brought to the Lyceum in 1888).

BTC30/5/7/3 & 4: Henry Brodribb Irving as both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, c. 1910
BTC30/5/7/3 & 4: Henry Brodribb Irving as both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, c. 1910

His brother Laurence Sydney Irving, on the other hand, worked directly with their father, acting with Sir Henry Irving’s troupe for several years. However, Laurence forged his own path as a writer, with several of his plays performed by Sir Henry’s Lyceum troupe before he went on to found his own acting troupe, taking it on tour in the USA and Canda. It is unclear to what extent Laurence Sydney Irving would step out from his father’s shadow since both Laurence and his wife would perish in the sinking of the Empress of Ireland steamship, sunk as it left harbour in Canada, in June 1914 with the loss of up to 1000 lives, including that of the young Irvings.

BTC30/7/4/5: Laurence Sydney Irving in Typhoon, c. 1912-1914

The collection also reveals the rise of the celebrity actress. Perhaps learning from the breakdown of their parents’ marriage, both Henry Brodribb and Laurence Sydney Irving married fellow actors. In the case of Henry Brodribb Irving, his wife Dorothea had already begun to carve out her own theatrical career and her part of the collection reveals some of the difficulties faced by actresses in the era, the potential for them to reach meteoric success and even the difficulties of being too closely associated with one role. BTC30/6/3/2 are transcripts of letters exchanged between Dorothea Baird, her future husband and other members of her family describing the trials of life on tour, including the difficult line walked by actresses who wished to retain their so-called moral character. The letters also reveal Dorothea’s attempts to provide her own costumes as well as her enthusiasm for the new hobby of cycling. However, this enthusiasm had its downside when Herbert Beerbohm Tree had to provide Dorothea with specific makeup since her relentless cycling had made her altogether too healthy for her to be a convincing corpse in the final act of Trilby!

BTC30/6/5: Page from a press cutting album kept by Dorothea Baird recording her career

By the third generation, the Irving family’s theatrical talents had developed in other directions, although Henry Brodribb and Dorothea Irving’s daughter Dorothea Elizabeth  (Lady Elizabeth Brunner) had a brief acting career before turning her attention to charitable activities, becoming Chairman of the National Federation of Women’s Institutions, organising the building of the Women’s Institute training centre Denman College and founding the Keep Britain Tidy Campaign. Her brother, Laurence Henry Irving also kept the theatrical flame alive, albeit as a designer and theatre historian rather than as an actor himself.

After a wartime stint as a pilot in the Royal Naval Air Service during the First World War (during which he was awarded the Croix du Guerre), Laurence Henry Irving enrolled at the Byam Shaw Art School and then the Royal Academy School, hoping to begin an art career, and in the 1920s he illustrated two books. A fortuitous introduction in 1926 set him on a theatrical path, and incidentally, led to the creation of one of children’s literature’s most enduring, and endearing, characters. In 1926, Laurence Irving was invited to design the sets for two numbers in the musical revue Vaudeville Vanities, and he struck up a friendship with the writer of one of the numbers, one A.A. Milne. As both men had young families of about the same age, Laurence Irving organised a trip for their children to London Zoo, the highlight of which was to be a feeding of Winnie, a Canadian Black bear, who had been brought to the UK as a regimental mascot for a Canadian regiment during the First World War, and who had remained in the care of London Zoo after the war. Milne’s young son Christopher, after some initial reservations, became fascinated by Winnie and this interaction inspired Milne to create his fictional bear, Winnie-the-Pooh.  But without Laurence Irving’s involvement with Vaudeville Vanities, Christopher Robin would never had met Winnie the bear, and thousands of children’s lives would have been immeasurably poorer!

BTC30/8/7/150: Letter from Christopher Milne 
BTC30/8/7/150:  Photograph from the unveiling of a statue to the bear Winnie, 21 October 1981

Laurence Henry Irving continued to be closely associated with the theatre, designing sets and costumes for numerous productions including Punchinello at the Globe, Becket (the play in which his grandfather made his last ever appearance on the night he died) and even Hamlet for the Old Vic. In 1929, silent film star Douglas Fairbanks invited Laurence Irving to California and he began a career as a film designer, designing for two Douglas Fairbanks films; The Taming of the Shrew and The Man in the Iron Mask.  Returning to Britain in the 1930s, Laurence Henry Irving continued to design for several British films, most notably Moonlight Sonata, starring Polish statesman turned concert pianist Jan Paderewski, and Gabriel Pascal’s adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.  The latter allowed Laurence to finally call a halt to an acrimonious dispute with George Bernard Shaw which had begun two generations earlier with Shaw’s disparaging comments on Sir Henry Irving’s funeral.

BTC30/8/1/12 Photograph taken during filming of Moonlight Sonata with Laurence Irving’s sets, 1936
BTC30/8/1/15/2: Laurence Irving’s design for John Hastings Turner’s Punchinello at the Globe Theatre, 1929

The collection also reveals the deeper impacts Laurence Henry Irving had on the development of twentieth century theatre. In 1933, shortly before he returned to Hollywood to design Douglas Fairbanks’ film version of The Man in the Iron Mask, Laurence Irving had become involved in the Canterbury Festival of Music and Drama, which commissioned as its first annual play The Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot, beginning what some consider the revival of religious drama, and Irving remained involved with the Canterbury Festival for decades. He was also a board member of RADA, continuing three generations of Irving involvement in the school; following on from Sir Henry Irving’s role as a trustee of the school and Henry Brodribb Irving’s donation to the school of a portion of the proceeds from his starring in an early film.

Laurence Henry Irving, and later his son John, also carved out their own place in the Irving family as historians and researchers. In 1959, Laurence Irving published “Sir Henry Irving; the Actor and his World”, a biography of his grandfather, following it up with “The Successors” in 1968, the first of a proposed trilogy of books covering a century of theatre history as seen through his own family history. John Irving, Laurence’s son, while continuing his own career in television and radio (and one of John’s letters to his father is particularly interesting for its descriptions of the preparations in his BBC department for the arrival of television) continued his father’s interest in their family history. In 2006, John oversaw the publication a section of his father’s autobiography dealing with his time in Hollywood as “Designing for the Movies”  (BTC30/10/1) and he was also an influential figure in the Irving Society, conducting research on and bringing together copies of many of the collections of Irving material held in overseas collections, including Harvard University, San Marino California and the papers of Stephen Coleridge, as well as conducting family research on the Brodribb family, into which Sir Henry Irving had been born, having changed his name from John Henry Irving Brodribb when he began his stage career.

As well as the professional lives of Irving family, the collection also allows us glimpses into the private lives of these celebrated theatrical figures. BTC30/2/1/53 is especially poignant. At first glance a routine programme for a regular touring performance of Henry Irving and his company in Becket and The Merchant of Venice, a closer examination of the date reveals that the last performance of The Merchant of Venice advertised, never took place as Sir Henry Irving died on the evening of 13 October 1905, after the evening performance of Becket, truly a farewell performance.

BTC30/2/1/53: Programme for a farewell performance of Becket and Merchant of Venice, 10-14 October 1905

Only a decade after Sir Henry Irving’s relatively early death, Florence Irving would lose both her sons within five years. Laurence Sydney Irving died in 1914 when the steamship Empress of Ireland on which he was travelling was sunk in harbour in Canada, inciting a flood of condolence correspondence to his mother and brother. Then in 1918, Henry Brodribb Irving died of a kidney disease at the age of only 49, leaving his mother, his wife and his two children. Celebrity is no defence against grief, and despite their legendary reputation, the Irving Family collection reveals both the public commiserations and the very private griefs.

: BTC30/5/5/4: Letter sent to Henry Brodribb Irving on behalf of King George V and Queen Mary sending their commiserations on the death of his brother Laurence Sydney Irving, 1914

These are just a very few of the many stories that have been revealed during the cataloguing of the Irving family papers and we are expecting a new addition to this collection that will hopefully reveal many more. Or you can search for some of these stories yourself. The Theatre collection is open to researchers from Tuesdays to Fridays and we welcome visitors and researchers alike. Or you can consult our online catalogue (Theatre Collection ( or our website ( for more details.

DV8’s archive now catalogued and available to view

Following his retirement, Lloyd Newson, Artistic Director of DV8 Physical Theatre, took the decision to donate the company’s archive to the University of Bristol Theatre Collection. This blog post will give you an idea of who the company were, the contents of the archive, and the process by which we went about ensuring that this collection will be maintained safely and intelligibly for anyone who wishes to view it in the future.

DV8 Physical Theatre (London, United Kingdom) was officially founded in 1986 by Lloyd Newson (1986-2015), Michelle Richecoeur (1986-88) and Nigel Charnock (1986-1989, 1992). Newson led the company as choreographer and artistic director since its inception, apart from My Sex, Our Dance (1986), which was co-created and performed with Charnock.

Newson, Charnock and Richecoeur had become disillusioned with what they saw as the preoccupations of most contemporary dance, considering it disconnected from the real world. The term ‘Physical Theatre’ was chosen due to the looser restrictions that come with that description, allowing them to incorporate whatever they felt necessary to say what they wanted to say. This included, but was not limited to film, dance, circus skills and text. DV8’s work sought to take risks, aesthetically and physically, and, above all, tried to communicate ideas and feelings clearly and unpretentiously.

Since receiving the collection in the spring of 2022, the Theatre Collection have been working on preparing the records of DV8 for long-term preservation and access to the public. The collection includes material from all DV8’s stage and film productions, consisting of photographs, film, stage plans and technical information, programmes, press and other documentation.

Pictures of archival boxes with the names of DV8 productions written on them.

Archiving is a team effort.  As the collection is made up of physical and digital material, the work to process this collection has been undertaken by several of us here at the Theatre Collection including our Audiovisual and Photography Digitisation officers Nigel Bryant and Sarah Bustamante-Brauning, Archive Assistant Laura Dow, Digital Archive Assistant Sam Brenton, as well as myself as Project Archivist. The work has included safely storing physical items using specialist, inert archival packaging to enable the preservation of material over the long-term, creating accessible copies of digital files whilst ensuring that a set of digital preservation copies can be maintained, and creating catalogue records describing the items within the collection.  There are almost two thousand items listed on the online catalogue which are available to view at the Theatre Collection.

Notably, the collection includes full recordings of several stage productions including The Cost of Living, Enter Achilles, To Be Straight With You, Can We Talk About This? and JOHN, as well as copies of the films My Sex, Our Dance, Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men, Strange Fish, Enter Achilles and The Cost of Living.  All of these are available to watch at the Theatre Collection (Due to copyright restrictions, we are unable to publish these online, but four of the films produced by DV8 can be viewed online, via Digital Theatre and some clips are also available to watch on DV8’s YouTube channel.

Photograph of three male performers revelling on a high street.

DV8/1/20/4/3, promotional photograph for Enter Achilles (2020) Copyright – Hugo Glendinning

The collection also contains documents and diagrams relating to design, such as lighting plans and stage designs for productions including Strange Fish and Enter Achilles, and items such as projector slides, used as part of DV8’s performance piece at the Tate Modern London, Living Costs.

The DV8 archive contains a wealth of material of interest to researchers, students, educators, and those generally interested in live art, dance and/or theatre. DV8 was a radically innovative company reflected in the critical recognition the company received during its lifetime and the recognition given to choreographer and Artistic Director Lloyd Newson, who was cited by the Critics Circle in 2013 as being one of the hundred most influential artists working in Britain during the last hundred years. In that same year, Newson was awarded an OBE for services to contemporary dance and prior to this received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Roehampton (2011). DV8 garnered over 50 national and international awards during its existence.

The collection is ready to view in our reading rooms, and a detailed catalogue of its contents can be viewed here (clicking on the underlined RefNo ‘DV8’ will begin to open up the directory, or ‘hierarchy’ of the archive catalogue)Please get in touch with us if you would like more information.

Artist-in-Residence Placement: Learning from Letters

It’s been nearly two months since my last blog post, and during my hiatus, my designated placement time with the Theatre Collection has been spent developing my research skills, as well as learning more about archiving and museum curatorial practices with Jill Sullivan (Assistant Keeper: User Services) and Athene Bain (Archives Assistant). These conversations have brought up some important context and theory behind archiving, as well as thought-provoking considerations about the preservation and access strategies of archives and museums. Furthermore, my gained understanding has supported my artistic process as I’ve begun to synthesise connections between particular archive items of interest, leading towards the creative conceptualisation and design of my performance.

My research has been guided by my exploration into the presentations of memory in theatre, either in the content of the play itself or discovered within the memories of the people who made and enjoyed theatre. I’ve paid particular attention to the visual materials such as photographs of actors, costume designs and set models, but I’ve unexpectedly been thoroughly engaged –and at several moments, entertained– by the written archives, more specifically letters.

I was helpfully directed to the Jessie & Annie Bourke Collection of correspondence (Reference: BTC80), five boxes of letters detailing the professional careers and later lives of Jessie, her sister Annie, and their cousin Eva Watson, actresses of the 1860s and 1870s. In this unique collection, I found a single telegraph addressed to Annie Bourke to be particularly intriguing. Characteristically short, I spent quite some time trying to decipher this cryptic message, and its greater meaning between the lines of the faintly penciled cursive.

An uncatalogued item in BTC80 Box 1: a telegraph addressed to Annie Bourke that reads ‘Don’t come, I have to go away’

My mind instantly wandered; I began to wonder whether this message was a simple warning that Annie would be met with disappointment at a previously agreed upon meeting spot? Or was this note emotionally charged, with unwritten but potentially weighty cause behind the sender’s impulse that they had no other option than ‘to go away’? Alongside the manifold number of long letters addressed to Annie – some even addressed to the name of the character she was playing on stage at the time – these letters allude to the intense adoration male audience members had for their favourite actors and the discomforting tension between declarations of admiration and harassment. Did Annie keep the reason for this telegraph in her memory? Did she remember the letters from her many admirers? Did she have favourites? Were there admirers whom she genuinely admired back, or whom she charmed for her own pleasure as the subject of adoration? Without her own responses, documented in the letters she did or did not send, we can never know. Moreover, I had found this moment of wonder to be incredibly formative for the devising process of my performance.

In addition to the sector knowledge and skills I have acquired, I have also learnt a hard lesson that any researcher must accept: unfortunately, it is impossible to see or research everything. Whilst I allowed myself time to explore tangential archive items, given the time constraints of the duration of my placement and my own time management between my final year units, I had to decide what leads I wanted to pursue and which I regrettably had to leave behind.

My direction of research has not been linear these last few months, but despite the twists and turns, the journey has been productive and, most notably of all, joyfully absorbing. Supported by Jill’s knowledgeable suggestions, I feel I have a solid foundation of research to begin to build the design conceptualisation of my performance, which I will share with you in my next post.