My Time with Kevin Elyot by Lucy Bell

The Kevin Elyot Award was established in 2016 as an annual award of £3,000 given to support a writer-in-residence at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection. It is given in memory of Kevin Elyot (1951-2014) – an alumnus of the University of Bristol Drama Department – 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 current winner of the Kevin Elyot award is Lucy Bell, a Devon-based playwright who writes funny, unflinching plays about British society, and the often-epic dilemmas of caring. Further information is available here: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/theatre-collection/news/2020/kevin-elyot-award-2020.html

 

I was delighted to start my residency at Bristol University Theatre Archive this autumn, as part of the Kevin Elyot Award. When Jo Elsworth rang to say I had won the award by unanimous decision of the panel, it was the highpoint of a troubling lockdown summer. In fact I was convinced she was ringing to either reject or interview me. I kept politely asking her to postpone the interview whilst she kept trying to explain that no interview was required. We got there in the end.

The idea I pitched was to do with the timeless time-sensitivity of women’s lives; how societal norms impose a ticking clock on women, the threat of “withering on the stem” (whether we want those norms or not). Ask yourself, would the US countenance a female president who was 78? They wouldn’t countenance a female president full stop. Many of us women feel explosively, joyfully released from those fertility-linked pressures at menopause, finally free to be the people we want to be, only to find our actual available time is decimated by the people we are now responsible for.

This is perhaps becoming less true, but it was certainly true for my generation, my mother’s generation and my grandmother’s generation. Kevin Elyot had a very different kind of life, but it seems this ticking clock was heard by him too. His characters are often gay men running after permanence in their relationships, constantly aware that the appeal of monogamy will soon reach its sell by date. And of course there is the lit fuse of HIV waiting in the wings. In his West End hit, My Night With Reg, a character dies between each scene.

              ERIC. Got a light?

              JOHN (giving him a light). I didn’t think you smoked.

              ERIC. I don’t, but everyone I know who doesn’t is dead.

Although Elyot doesn’t have the profile his ready wit deserves, his writing seems especially relevant in a year where we’ve all been forced to engage with mortality.

Leafing through Kevin Elyot’s archive has been an encounter with time in other ways too. On my first visit, I was struck by the sensation that this other writer, who I’d never met, who might not like me one bit if he’d ever met me, was extending a supportive hand, a hug even, across time.

Everyone knows that rejections are a constant and bruising part of being a writer. It was weirdly reassuring to read through bundles of letters rejecting the plays of such a successful and prolific playwright. A couple of times I laughed out loud at stock phrases I’d been sent myself. (At least 2020 has made gatekeepers choose their words more carefully!) In his print interviews I could hear his voice questioning why writing remains a compulsion, despite its many pitfalls, protesting against his works being siloed as a “gay plays” for gay theatres and festivals.

His plays are tangibly about love, loss, and the pursuit of the sublime. They also happen to include, rather than exclude, gay perspectives. I thought about how things are now, how the pressure to trade on characteristics has got stronger and how that can feel frustrating when you want to express your personal, rather than tribal, experience of life, and be allowed to speak to universal themes.

It was thrilling to feel time contract, as I found mutual points of contact across the decades. Peggy Ramsay was Kevin Elyot’s first agent, and her charitable trust has supported me, in my particular circumstances, to find time to write.

Elyot entered the George Devine Prize. The judges on his rejection letter included John Burgess who was a director at The Royal Court, where Elyot’s last play, Forty Winks, was staged. John’s the person who taught me to write plays through his free-to-access writing group at Nuffield Theatre, he separately supported the director I happen to be working with right now. It reassured me to think that, while our theatre buildings are imperiled, wonderful individuals like John and Peggy Ramsay are a flexing, unbreakable spine through the decades, touching so many creative lives.

Lastly, time is a key driver of Kevin Elyot’s play structures. Often time is looping backwards and forwards. You are pulled forward by the desire to see the scene that came before or in between. The character’s brains are looping backwards to a moment in adolescence when they experienced unadulterated love. I am hoping to tap into Elyot’s manipulation of time in the piece I write, as it relates to three generations of women marked by the same accident. I hope I can learn from Elyot to make it equally hard to put down.

There are, of course, some ways in which Elyot’s work seems of its time and not ours. There are casual references to incest and sex with minors which would never arise as throwaway dialogue today. His characters, men in their twenties, thirties and forties, rarely check their privilege in terms of the amount of time and freedom they have to do what they like.

As a mother and carer, I initially found this slightly alienating. Then I realized it was symptomatic of something profoundly unfair, and possibly the reason his characters look backwards instead of forwards. Elyot died in 2014, the year that gay marriage became possible. In his heyday, gay couples with children were an anomaly. I’ll never know what Elyot wanted or needed from his personal life, but Coming Clean, My Night with Reg, and Forty Winks read as tragedies about characters in search of an anchor. This makes Elyot’s timing seem very hard indeed.

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