Kevin Elyot’s Archive and Mouth to Mouth (2001) by Samuel Adamson

As a writer-in-residence at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, I’ve spent time researching the papers of the playwright and screenwriter Kevin Elyot (1951-2014).  Here is my fifth article in response to Elyot’s archive, in which I discuss his fourth play Mouth to Mouth.  A general reflection on Elyot is here. I’ve also written about Coming Clean (1982), My Night with Reg (1994), and The Day I Stood Still (1998).

My year with Kev: moral questions

Two moral questions arose for me during my time in the playwright Kevin Elyot’s archive as the recipient of the 2023 Kevin Elyot Award.

My stated aim to the award’s panel was to write about Elyot – but I’m a playwright, not a biographer, and the first question was, simply, is this right?

Elyot was guarded about himself in interviews, and, as his agent Sebastian Born told me, did not share early ideas or drafts with others:

Kevin’s plays always arrived fully formed. He was superstitious about saying anything about what he was working on, so every once in a while I would receive a brown envelope containing his latest play. Such a thrill for an agent.1

Not unexpectedly, the archive reveals things Elyot withheld from journalists, as well as the hard work – pages of notes, multiple drafts – behind those ‘fully formed’ plays. With his notebooks, letters, research materials, press cuttings, and photographs, I was privy to some of Elyot’s innermost fears, tastes, resentments, pains, joys – and some of his personal opinions on friends and collaborators.

I was able to quell my unease about this strange intimacy with Elyot fairly quickly. I assumed that had he not wanted people to make discoveries about his life and practice, he’d have destroyed his papers. Besides, the yearly award – funded by an endowment given to the University of Bristol by members of Elyot’s family – exists to inspire writers in their own practice. It asks them to consider not only Elyot’s published and produced work, but the life and work behind that work. The materials are there to be read, and I began to understand the award as an act of artistic serial reciprocity, a tip of Elyot’s cap to succeeding generations.

The second moral question was how relevant are Elyot’s papers to my understanding of his performed and published work?

It’s obvious that Elyot drew from personal experience to write his plays, and there’s a lot in his notes about what he intended the plays to do. So it’s tempting to disregard the biographical and intentional fallacies – those (in my view) sound and helpful twentieth-century critical theories – and read the work via the life. Elyot argued in a column in The Telegraph in 2001 that if art reflects the artist, ‘this is only part of the story,’ yet at the same admitted,

Whether a play is about a schoolboy love affair or a satire on the power of the multinationals, it will only work if the writer taps an emotional core and thus, to some degree, reveals himself.2

The central character in Elyot’s fourth original play Mouth to Mouth is a playwright called Frank. When asked by the journalist Heather Neill at the time of the play’s premiere in 2001, ‘does Frank equal Kevin?’, Elyot could not quite deny it:

That’s a difficult one. Everything I write is a bit autobiographical, but I’m in all the characters.3

His piercingly honest, funny, moving and often troubling plays simply have the feel of being personal.

In the end, I decided to make myself comfortable on the fence. Sometimes Elyot’s papers elucidate the work, but the work stands on its own. On the one hand, I prefer to look at texts as texts – on the other, these articles are the reflections of a playwright, not academic research papers, so I don’t have to take any notice of the biographical and intentional fallacies.

All I’ve been able to do, as someone who admires Elyot’s writing, is reread his published plays, immerse myself in his papers, and call it as I see it.

As I see it, his archive reveals two key things about Elyot.

‘The usual’: undisclosed emotion, frustrated desire

The first is that his notes are not dissimilar from his six original plays, in that there is a steady repetition of ideas. As I’ve written elsewhere, Elyot was a hedgehog of a playwright, a Proustian obsessed with the same themes: the recovery of the past, repressed desire, the Forsterian need to connect, music, betrayal, guilt, mortality. In an early notebook for The Day I Stood Still, he wrote:

A tragedy interrupted by life’s vulgar comedy.

Show inhumanity bleeding.


Undisclosed emotion.

Frustrated desire.

The usual!4

Because he was preoccupied with ‘the usual,’ his projects intersected, and some notebooks resist the archivist’s ex post facto categorisation. Elyot’s method, in his own words at the time of Mouth to Mouth, was ‘to make lots of notes over a long period. Hopefully something emerges that I can fashion into a play.’5 He discussed this process more expansively with Harriet Devine in 2005:

DEVINE:  […] how does it happen that an idea for a play comes along? Is it always the same process? Does something happen that sparks it off?

ELYOT:  It might be a moment that intrigues me, or – it can start off in the oddest way. And really it makes me sound a bit capricious and maybe rather shallow because, while some playwrights might sit down to write a play about Guantanamo, or the Health Service, I tend to write a play because I want to see two people doing a tango, or want to hear a piece of music in juxtaposition to something else. And then gradually you put pieces together over a length of time, and shape something out of it.6

Elyot’s reworking of the same themes – not ‘shallow’ themes, yet not overtly political ones – combined with his process of starting with ‘fragments’ (Devine’s word), meant that plays developed concurrently. In a notebook assigned by the Theatre Collection to The Day I Stood Still, he wrote in capitals, ‘WRITE TWO PLAYS!’, and although the play he developed in this book is indeed The Day I Stood Still, many of its ‘fragments’ form the basis for his next play.7 Early on he wrote, ‘Wife: Lindsay’ – a reference to his friend the actor Lindsay Duncan, for whom he created the part of Laura in that play, eventually called Mouth to Mouth.8 A few pages later, he wrote:


X. falls for son of friends (wife + hubby). Starts rel. underage. So X. is having son. Wife’s having affair.9

Here, Elyot discovered the essential plot of Mouth to Mouth – the secret betrayal by her gay best friend of a wife who has her own secret – as he shaped The Day I Stood Still.

Ticket stub for Mouth to mouth Press night
Press night ticket, West End transfer, University of Bristol Theatre Collection, KE/3/26/5

Vulnerable playwright

The second key thing Elyot’s papers reveal is his self-doubt, an insecurity slightly at odds with the acerbic persona he projected in interviews (and which friends and colleagues have written about since his death) though not necessarily with characters like Guy in My Night with Reg, Horace in The Day I Stood Still and Frank in Mouth to Mouth, who all struggle with diffidence, and whose unexpressed secrets fuel the plays’ plots.10

Elyot was, I think, self-conscious about ‘the usual,’ aware that to plough the same territory over and over was to risk not discovering new story treasures, and to risk being criticised for repeating himself.

In a Day I Stood Still notebook he wrote, ‘Squash all opposition with some big, assured laughs + bold dramatic strokes’ – his apprehension about ‘opposition’ is revealing.11

A galvanising message to himself in a Mouth to Mouth notebook is wise, and inspiring to anyone who reads it. But there is a poignancy to it; in my view, only a vulnerable artist could have written it:

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.12

Mouth to Mouth: a moral question

Wonderfully, Elyot, a gay, HIV-positive playwright, a waspish and quick-witted Proustian who was nevertheless insecure about his writing and worried about repeating himself, harnessed his insecurity and experience of chronic illness to write a masterpiece about – I want to groan, and yet! – a gay, witty, insecure, HIV-positive and Proustian playwright, who, suffering from writer’s block, laments to Laura (his best friend, that ‘Wife’ in the The Day I Stood Still notebook) that he is ‘always being accused of writing about the same thing.’13

I suggest that any blocked and/or insecure writer reading this should refrain from taking heart from it: surely no one should write dramas about not being able to write. Yet somehow, with Mouth to Mouth, Elyot produced a stylish, droll and deeply disturbing meditation on a moral question: should writers draw from real life? Can they, if it involves betrayal of loved ones? Can writing only ever be a sharp practice?

The play has a palindromic structure and begins with a scene in which we glean that something terrible has happened – ‘unimaginably tragic’ as Frank says later – and that Frank has things he needs to confess to Laura.14 We flash back, then forward, to discover what these things are – and that everyone, not just Frank, has his or her own guilts and secrets.

In the final scene we return, according to a palindrome, to the first scene, and climactically get the answer to the question we have seen Frank grappling with throughout: should I use my life, the things that have happened to me and that I have made happen, to create my art?

In one reading, the answer is no: Frank will not plunder his life, and will not exacerbate the trauma of his best friend Laura, whose son, we now know, has died in a dreadful accident.

But human beings are complex creatures, and though he says he wants to, Frank never confesses his secrets/sins to Laura, perhaps in part because without her knowledge he discovers the secret of her affair. Typically for Elyot, there is more than one reading.

For a late draft of My Night with Reg, Elyot used two epigraphs: a passage from Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s posthumous novel The Leopard, which survived into Reg’s published edition; and a passage from Patrick White’s 1976 novel A Fringe of Leaves:

‘… Would you not say that life is a series of blunders rather than any clear design, from which we may come out whole if we are lucky?’15

Elyot dropped the White from Reg’s rehearsal draft onwards, but it was a very interesting idea, because the play and all of Elyot’s subsequent plays including Mouth to Mouth are scrupulously well-designed, yet peopled by characters blundering through life, barely coming out whole. The design of art can (should?) be elegant, but, first-rate playwright that he was, Elyot was utterly fearless when it came to the messy ‘truth of life’ for the characters inside his design – Truth as Hilary Mantel sees it in her memoir Giving Up the Ghost:

Truth isn’t pretty […] and the pursuit of it doesn’t make pretty people. Truth isn’t elegant; that’s just mathematicians’ sentimentality. Truth is squalid and full of blots, and you can only find it in the accumulation of dusty and broken facts, in the cellars and sewers of the human mind.16

Mouth to Mouth’s epigraph is from the final volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time:

The whole art of living is to make use of the individuals through whom we suffer.17

and this lesson becomes a lifeline for the dying playwright Frank, who’s known, if he’s known at all, for a play about Proust called ‘A Piece of Cake’:

What happened [to Laura’s son] – was just awful – unimaginably tragic. It’s haunted me for a year. And the point is – I think it’d make quite a good play. You see, I’m coming round to the opinion that I have to use whatever’s thrown at me.18

Showing how it goes

Elyot was not Frank. As he said to Neill, ‘I’m in all the characters,’ and as he said to Mireia Aragay and Pilar Zozaya, playwriting is about making things up:

I don’t lead a life full enough to be able to write several plays about. I don’t do that much, and my daily routine is pretty boring, so I can’t be writing about that. It would be very dull to sit in a theatre watching it unfold. The key is to try and enter the world of the imagination.19

Yet the anxieties Elyot expressed in his notebooks about repeating himself with ‘the usual’ and running out of ideas, and even the point he made to Aragay and Zozaya about his uninteresting life, turn up in Mouth to Mouth:

FRANK: I’m finding it [writing] pretty difficult, to be honest. I can’t put my finger on why exactly –

LAURA: No ideas.

FRANK: That could be it. But no, I’m having quite a hard time. I’m always being accused of writing about the same thing.

LAURA: And what would that be?

FRANK: Well, me, as it happens, which simply isn’t true. They say it’s a sign of creative bankruptcy.

LAURA: I’d have thought personal experience was the only thing worth writing about.

FRANK: But my life isn’t that interesting, and if it were, I wouldn’t have the time to write about it.

LAURA: Oh, I do wish tonight weren’t happening!

FRANK: Yes, well … Nice olives.20

In a lesser writer’s hands, these writerly anxieties might bore or irritate, seem like so much authorial moaning. But Frank is more complex than he appears – and I love how, as in Chekhov, his complexity is conveyed partly by the hilarious indifference with which he is treated by others. The exchange ‘Oh, I do wish tonight weren’t happening’ and ‘Yes, well … Nice olives’ is typical: we know there’s a world of torment and doubt inside Frank because Laura doesn’t really care and Frank must turn to the subject of olives.

All of Elyot’s dialogue is like this: crisp, funny and, most importantly, full of subtext. It is never self-righteous, but it demands its audience interrogate knotty moral questions and not-pretty truths about human beings:

We lie.

We are duplicitous.

And the artists among us are impelled by nature to use whatever treasures they find in their territory to create their art.

‘I wouldn’t dream of preaching,’ Elyot said, ‘I just show how it goes.’21

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

1 Sebastian Born, email to me, 7 March 2024.
2 Kevin Elyot, ‘Whose life is on stage, anyway?’, Daily Telegraph, 12 May 2001, p. A7, University of Bristol Theatre Collection (UBTC), KE/3/26/5.
3 Elyot to Heather Neill, The Times, 2 February 2001, UBTC, KE/3/26/5.
4 UBTC, KE/3/23/1, Book 1 of 3, p. 36.
5 Elyot to Neill.
6 Elyot to Harriet Devine in Looking Back: Playwrights at the Royal Court 1956-2006 (London: Faber, 2006), p. 111.
7 UBTC, KE/3/23/1, Book 1 of 3, p. 88.
8 UBTC, KE/3/23/1, Book 1 of 3, p. 28.
9 UBTC, KE/3/23/1, Book 1 of 3, p. 34.
10 See, for example, Roger Michell and Robert Hastie in ‘Remembering Kevin,’ Introduction to My Night with Reg (London: Nick Hern Books, 1994, repr. 2013), pp. 8-10.
11 UBTC, KE/3/21/1, Book 1 of 3, p. 42.
12 UBTC, KE/3/26/1, Book 2 of 3, p. 58.
13 Elyot, Mouth to Mouth (London: Nick Hern Books, 2001), p. 20.
14 Ibid, p. 52.
15 UBTC, KE/3/19/2, Book 3 of 3 (My Night with Reg 31/3/94 draft).
16 Hilary Mantel, Giving Up the Ghost: a Memoir (London: Fourth Estate, 2003; repr. 2013), p. 151.
17 Elyot, Mouth to Mouth, p. 5.
18 Ibid, pp. 27, 52. Elyot wrote a short ‘extract from “A Piece of Cake”’ in a notebook. Brilliantly, Proust does not get his memory-triggering madeleine, because a Young Man, replacing the indisposed waitress Clotilde (who ‘thinks she ate a suspect prawn for luncheon’), remembers his rosehip infusion but not his cake. When Proust realises the Young Man is English, he declares, ‘I suspect there is more to this than meets the eye,’ and the extract finishes. UBTC, KE/3/26/1, Book 3 of 3, pp. 3-4.
19 Elyot to Mireia Aragay and Pilar Zozaya, in British Theatre of the 1990s: Interviews with Directors, Playwrights, Critics and Academics, ed. by Aragay, Hildegard Klein, Enric Monforte, Zozaya (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 70.
20 Elyot, Mouth to Mouth, pp. 20-1.
21 Elyot to Carole Woddis, ‘An afternoon with Kevin’, Capital Gay, 22 April 1994, p. 16, UBTC, KE/3/19/7, 5 of 5.

Kevin Elyot’s The Day I Stood Still (1998) by Samuel Adamson

As the Kevin Elyot Award writer-in-residence at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, I have spent time researching the papers of the playwright and screenwriter Kevin Elyot (1951-2014). Here is my fourth article in response to Elyot’s archive, in which I discuss his third play – my favourite Elyot play – The Day I Stood Still. A general reflection on Elyot is here. My article on his debut Coming Clean (1982) is here. My article on his second and most famous play My Night with Reg (1994) is here.


It seems to me a lot of yearning goes on in your plays.

I think you’re right.

[…] It’s very obvious in My Night with Reg, isn’t it, where this poor guy has been living for God knows how many years on this moment where something could have happened that didn’t.

You should read The Day I Stood Still!

Kevin Elyot interviewed by Harriet Devine in 20051

The post-Reg syndrome

Kevin Elyot’s third original play The Day I Stood Still premiered on 22 January 1998 in the Cottesloe (now Dorfman) auditorium of the National Theatre, London. It was directed by Ian Rickson and starred Adrian Scarborough and Callum Dixon as old and young versions of the title character ‘I’ – that is Horace, a self-conscious single gay man in the mould of Guy in Elyot’s second play My Night with Reg.

Sebastian Born, Elyot’s agent, told me how Rickson came to be the director:

Kevin was always cautious about to whom he would entrust his work and neither of us had seen anything directed by Ian. So we went to the spellbinding first preview of his production at the Ambassadors [Theatre] […] of a new play by an unknown Irish writer – The Weir [Conor McPherson]. Afterwards, Kevin didn’t say anything, just went up to Ian who was waiting in the foyer and said yes.2

Although The Day I Stood Still was well received – The Guardian thought it ‘an intelligent play about a common experience: the Proustian notion that the true paradise is the one that we have lost’ – there has been no major UK revival.3

It is possible that the much-acclaimed My Night with Reg has obscured Elyot’s other achievements: in 2014 The Telegraph thought so in a piece on theatrical ‘one-hit wonders,’ and recently a theatre producer I know of, when presented with the idea of The Day I Stood Still, responded, ‘I can’t sell that, but I can sell Reg.’4

Elyot himself told Veronica Lee in 2001,

I knew that Reg was always going to be a hard act to follow and the response would be more muted. I was anticipating the post-Reg syndrome and certainly never tried to cap it.5

It is a shame The Day I Stood Still is somewhat forgotten, because with it, in my view, Elyot did cap My Night with Reg. This beautifully constructed Chekhovian meditation on our yearning for youth as we age, and on the exquisite pain of unrequited love, is the apotheosis of Elyot’s career as a dramatic poet.

Headshot of Kevin Elyot leaning on elbow with hand held next to face
Kevin Elyot (1951-2014) photographed by Phil Fisk

The play: that awful moment

The play begins circa 1983 in Horace’s North London flat. He has just opened the door to an unexpected guest, Judy, the widow of Jerry, Horace’s old school friend; Jerry and Judy’s four-year-old son Jimi is Horace’s godson.

Horace loved Jerry – and just how immobilising this love has been is explored as the play jumps forward to 1996, when the 17-year-old Jimi visits Horace; then back to 1969, when Horace, Jerry and Judy are 17 and have the world at their feet.

The ‘crux,’ to use Elyot’s own word in his papers at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, comes on that day in 1969.6 While the Jimi Hendrix-obsessed Judy dozes (she’s drunk half a bottle of Dimyril), the talented pianist Jerry, stoned and with the munchies, shares a Mars Bar with Horace. ‘Go with a girl,’ Jerry says,

It’ll change your life.

HORACE (coping with Mars in the mouth):  But I don’t want to! You must know that! I want to do it … I want to do it with you. Sorry.


JERRY:  You’ll meet loads of people.

HORACE:  Yes, I might –

JERRY:  Loads.

HORACE:  But that wouldn’t change – doesn’t change – what I feel.

JERRY:  There’ll be someone else.

HORACE:  No, I don’t think there will.

They look at each other, face to face. Pause. For a second, they seem to get fractionally closer.

JUDY (coming round, in a strong Birmingham accent): Fucking beautiful!

HORACE and JERRY’s moment is broken.

JUDY:  I fucking love you, Jimi!7

This turning point was sketched by Elyot in one of his notebooks for the play:

[Horace] can’t rid himself of Jerry, whereas Jerry’s on verge of moving on (with girls / Judy). THAT awful moment when when [sic] you realize someone’s developed, moving on to next stage, + you’re still in the same place. **THIS CRUCIAL.8

By the time we get to this ‘awful moment’ in the play’s third scene, we know the Horace of 1983 and 1996, so we know that he’s right when he says there’ll be no one else (and that he will always have an unhealthy relationship with Mars Bars).

In the opening 1983 scene, a masterclass in the art of subtle dramatic exposition, Judy captures Horace’s character in two crisp insults. Concerning the flat, which he inherited from his parents and which has seen better days, she says, ‘You’ll take root.’9 Upon learning he is still in the same job – in a museum, if the point that he is one of life’s museum pieces has been missed – she says, ‘You’ll ossify’.10

As a character, Horace never ossifies because Elyot’s three scenes are always alive with promise, danger and poignancy. In 1996, the arrival of the 17-year-old Jimi, AWOL from boarding school after being rejected by a boyfriend (a story that mirrors Horace and Jerry’s), ignites in Horace a sense of godfatherly responsibility and transgressive possibility – as well as stirring nostalgia. ‘There was one day,’ he reflects, after Jimi asks about the father Jimi never knew,

one day we had – when I met your mother, actually – which was sort of complete. One of those moments in life when you realise, ‘Ah, that’s what it’s like to be happy.’ […] When I’m dying, it’s that moment that’ll make me think it was all worthwhile. My life crystallized in the memory of a moment. It was like we were outside time.11

In 1969, this idyll of youth – ‘idyll’ is Elyot’s own descriptor for the scene – is vitalised by youth’s romanticism, then destroyed by youth’s unthinking cruelty when Jerry goes off with Judy.12 His act, ‘that awful moment,’ paralyses Horace forever. And yet – partly thanks to the scene with Jimi, partly to a subplot involving interrupted sex with a prostitute – Horace’s life always feels on the verge of movement, of something ‘worthwhile.’ Elyot pulls off a sophisticated trick: dramatic momentum in a play about inaction.

open promotional brochure with text relating to the play The Day I Stood Still
National Theatre brochure, original production (University of Bristol Theatre Collection, KE/3/23/4)

The painful craft of playwriting: leitmotifs, irony, coincidence

It is Elyot’s crafty manipulation of stage time that lends The Day I Stood Still much of this vigour: in its director Rickson’s words, we as audience are put ‘in a very empowered position’ because as the first two scenes give way to the third, we know more about the characters’ fates than they do – a dramatic technique that recalls J.B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways and Harold Pinter’s Betrayal.13

This is inevitably affecting – the dreams of youth look pitiable when we know they won’t come true – and our feeling for the characters as subjects of Time is intensified by Elyot’s careful orchestration of leitmotifs, of recurring themes and artefacts. The Mars Bars are like Proust’s madeleines: they – along with a perilously rickety chair, a chain Jerry gives to Horace, and the Beethoven Jerry plays on Horace’s piano – keep reappearing, building into a kind of symphony of memory and irony.

At the centre is the most ironic thing of all, a Wildean tragedy: Horace kills the thing he loves. In 1969, Jerry suggests to Horace he ‘could write a novel.’14 He does, and thirteen years later, sends Jerry a copy. This is the cause of Jerry’s death: he gets blood-poisoning after nicking his finger on ‘the silvery thing […] holding together [the] manuscript.’15

Elyot loved coincidence, and arguably this is a coincidence too far; perhaps Alastair Macaulay in the Financial Times thought so when he objected to the play’s ‘excessive neatness.’16 Yet as contrived as Horace’s (accidental) complicity in Jerry’s death is, it is so subtly embedded into the play’s texture, and so tragicomically right for both the hapless Horace and the romantic Jerry, that it works.

I view it as a supreme piece of dramaturgical handiwork, and I found it fascinating to discover how this kind of elegant formal conceit, typical of Elyot, belies his unsystematic writing process. Notebooks in his archive scrawled with ideas support his comment to Rickson that

I started coming at The Day I Stood Still from several angles and made copious notes for a couple of years. Then little catalysts would happen – a photograph, a piece of music – and gradually I saw a pattern emerging.17

This was his method for all of his original plays: ‘you put pieces together over a length of time,’ he told Harriet Devine in 2005, ‘and shape something out of it.’18 My sense – and this is hardly a surprise to a writer – is that this process could be painful. On page one of the first The Day I Stood Still notebook he wrote, ‘“Vanya” as model,’ then, perhaps overwhelmed by his invocation of Chekhov, told himself, ‘DON’T TURN another play into an Everest!’ Later, his playwriting competition tormented him: ‘Pinter wrote play in 4 weeks!’ Elsewhere, he girded himself in the red pen he saved for his most important notes:

GET ON with play. DON’T tell anyone. Take them by surprise.19

An artist of survival

Elyot did get on with it, and in the four years after My Night with Reg fashioned a most moving play, one that shares with Uncle Vanya a love triangle in which the title character is the loser – to use one critic’s phrase, Horace is, like Uncle Vanya, ‘one of nature’s Plain Jane gooseberries.’20 Devine told Elyot ‘that tears were just pouring down [the] face’ of a friend who saw the original production; Elyot responded that ‘it did seem to have an effect on people.’21 I remember being one of them: even in my cheap seat in the gods of the National Theatre’s Cottesloe, I was touched by Horace’s tragic yet still somehow sardonic, somehow optimistic loneliness.

In Scene One, Judy tells Horace he should be ‘doing things and going places,’ but he responds,

I don’t want to. I’m fine as I am. I like this place, and I’ve got my music, my books, a friend or two. Honestly, Jude, I’m okay. I’m fairly happy.22

In his notes, Elyot quoted Clive James:

Beethoven wrote the Appassionata because he had no one to be passionate with – as any kind of artist, that’s your consolation.

and he reworked this into his play:

HORACE:  What would I write a novel about?

JERRY:  I don’t know. Love, death, murder, passion –

HORACE:  I don’t have anyone to be passionate about, do I?

JERRY: That’s no excuse. Beethoven wrote the Appassionata and he had no-one to be passionate about.23

Outwardly, Horace is not an artist – the novel that kills Jerry is the only thing he ever writes. But in fact I think he is: he is an Artist of Survival, as we all must be if we are to live in this world. He survives on Mars Bars, that is, on his love for Jerry – even though that love is unreturned and Jerry is dead for two thirds of the play. He has no ambition, and returns over and over to ‘that awful moment’ when he stood still (Elyot considered the title Square One).24 Yet he is ‘fairly happy,’ and it’s hard not to admire a chap so cheerfully philosophical about life’s anti-climaxes:

I’m not that keen on travel, you know. I like watching travel programmes and I find that kind of enough. Going’s always a let-down, don’t you think?25

This is relatable, bittersweet stuff, and after he saw the play, the composer Gary Yershon wrote Elyot a letter in which he asked, ‘Ah, Kevin […] Who since Chekhov brings laughter and tears together as powerfully as you?’ He answered his own question: ‘No one. I am lost in admiration.’26

I would love to see a revival.

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

1 Harriet Devine, Looking Back: Playwrights at the Royal Court, 1956-2006 (London: Faber, 2006), p. 112.
2 Sebastian Born, email to me, 8 March 2024.
3 Michael Billington, Guardian, 23 January 1998, University of Bristol Theatre Collection (UBTC), KE/3/23/5.
4 Dominic Cavendish, ‘All hail theatre’s one-hit wonders’, The Telegraph, 12 June 2014.
5 Kevin Elyot to Veronica Lee, ‘Putting “Reg” to bed with a bit of mouth-to-mouth’, [n.p.; perhaps The Times] [n.d.], interview at the time of Mouth to Mouth, 2001, UBTC, KE/3/26/5.
6 UBTC, KE/3/23/1, 2 of 3, p. 17.
7 Elyot, The Day I Stood Still (London: Nick Hern Books, 1998), pp. 83-4.
8 UBTC, KE/3/23/1, 3 of 3, p. 13.
9 Elyot, The Day I Stood Still, p. 13.
10 Ibid, p. 14.
11 Ibid, pp. 56-7.
12 UBTC, KE/3/23/1, 1 of 3, pp. 5, 79.
13 Ian Rickson in ‘Ian Rickson and Kevin Elyot in conversation’ (November 1997), National Theatre programme for The Day I Stood Still, UBTC, KE/3/23/4.
14 Elyot, The Day I Stood Still, p. 81.
15 Ibid, pp. 39-40.
16 Alastair Macaulay, Financial Times, 24 January 1998, UBTC, KE/3/23/5.
17 Elyot in National Theatre programme.
18 Elyot to Devine, p. 111.
19 UBTC, KE/3/23/1, 1 of 3, pp. 1, 32, 35.
20 Paul Taylor, Independent, 26 January 1998, UBTC, KE/3/23/5.
21 Devine to Elyot and Elyot to Devine, p. 112.
22 Elyot, The Day I Stood Still, p. 15.
23 UBTC, KE/3/23/1, Book 2 of 3, p. 23 [Clive James interviewed in The Guardian, 12 October 1996]; Elyot, The Day I Stood Still, p. 81.
24 UBTC, KE/3/23/1, 3 of 3, p. 13.
25 Elyot, The Day I Stood Still, p. 12.
26 Gary Yershon to Elyot, 4 February 1998, UBTC, KE/3/23/6.

Kevin Elyot’s My Night with Reg (1994) by Samuel Adamson

As the 2023 Kevin Elyot Award writer-in-residence at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, I have written a series of articles on the original plays of the playwright and screenwriter Kevin Elyot (1951-2014). Here is my third, on his second and most famous play My Night with Reg. A general reflection on Elyot is here. My piece on his debut play Coming Clean (1982) is here.

Rejection and triumph

Kevin Elyot’s second play My Night with Reg took him twelve years to write. It made his name.

Set in the 1980s, it is a tragicomedy about seven gay men in North London living in the shadow of Aids. One of them, Reg, never appears though his impact on the others is profound – a Waiting for Godot-like conceit in a play built upon several elegant formal conceits.

Elyot was commissioned to write the play by London’s Hampstead Theatre, but in mid-1993 it was rejected: my analysis of that rejection, according to my reading of the relevant documents in Elyot’s archive at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, is here.

Since I wrote that piece, Sebastian Born, Elyot’s agent, told me that a reading of the play at Hampstead was ‘for some reason the worst, flattest experience of any reading I’ve ever attended.’ After Elyot and Hampstead parted ways, Born ‘tried to reassure a depressed author that there would be interest elsewhere.’ He sent the play to the Royal Court Theatre, then under the artistic directorship of Stephen Daldry, and a few days later, the literary department expressed an interest.1

On 31 March 1994, My Night with Reg premiered at the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs in a production directed by Roger Michell.

It was critically acclaimed, transferred to the Criterion Theatre in the West End, published by Nick Hern Books, garnered Elyot the 1995 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Comedy, and was filmed for the BBC by Michell with its original cast.

The play: a play with time

My Night with Reg is a beautifully constructed play in three scenes.

In Scene One, old University of Bristol friends Guy, John and Daniel (the allusions to Elton John are deliberate) gather for a housewarming at Guy’s flat. When Daniel leaves, John confesses to Guy that he is having an affair with Reg, Daniel’s boyfriend, who is due at the housewarming. This is a terrible blow to Guy, as he harbours a secret love for John.

With Scene Two comes the first of two coups de théâtre, and Elyot’s own words in one of his notebooks can convey it:

at the start […] we think it’s the FLATWARMING, but are jerked on a year or so to realise it’s a WAKE + Reg’s at that!!!2

Reg has died of Aids – and gradually, we understand that everyone at the wake has slept with him.

Everyone, that is, except for Guy.

In Scene Three, all of Reg’s lovers are still alive – but now, ironically, it is Guy who has died of Aids (the result of non-consensual sex in Lanzarote with ‘a mortician from Swindon’).3 The setting remains Guy’s flat: he has left it to John. This second time-jump is even more startling than the first, and particularly heartbreaking, as Guy is so dedicated to safe sex that according to Daniel he ‘masturbates in Marigolds.’4

The fate of the play’s central figure, a self-conscious and good-natured chap inhibited by his unrequited love for John, lends the writing a deep – Chekhovian – sense of yearning and sadness.

Sex in a time of Aids

Obviously, much of this is tragic, and by the end of Scene Three, the audience feels the terrible weight of the men’s collective losses.

And yet at the same time, it has experienced a play that is a celebration – a celebration of gay friendship, and of gay sex. Throughout, Elyot’s characters, most of whom came of age during the heady 1970s, are brazenly sexual, wittily gay in all senses, even in the face of the new and cruel threat to their erotic lives after the liberations of their salad days. Double entendres in both the stage direction and dialogue in the fourth line of Scene One tell the audience what to expect –

GUY: (Taking it off [an apron]. I was just stiffening some egg whites.

– and this passage reflects the general tone:

They embrace again. DANIEL mauls JOHN’s backside.

DANIEL:  Darling, it’s dropped!

JOHN: Fuck off!

DANIEL: Dropped, dropped, dropped! At least two inches! It’ll be dragging on the floor before the night’s out.

JOHN tweaks one of DANIEL’s nipples. DANIEL shrieks. ERIC looks on.

DANIEL: No, it hasn’t! It’s perfect! I promise!

JOHN lets go.

DANIEL: The Flying Fuck of the First Fifteen!

They embrace again.

DANIEL: Darling, be gentle! I’m still intacta.5

The sexual freedoms gay men discovered in the 1970s had been celebrated and interrogated by Elyot in his first play Coming Clean, which premiered at London’s Bush Theatre at the end of 1982, just before Aids had really made its terrible mark. In the twelve years between the two plays, a busy Elyot wrote several adaptations, and Killing Time, an original and award-winning film for the BBC. But there is a sense in his notebooks that the Aids crisis was unsettling to his playwriting: he struggled to deal with the shock of loss – the loss of lovers and friends, and the loss of sex without consequence. He was a writer interested in shame-free gay sexuality who wanted to

MAKE THEATRICAL POETRY out of casual sex, a casual pick-up.6


Ruffle the feathers of the activists. Make it dead dangerous.7

For some time, he imagined Reg as a sequel to Coming Clean, with some of the same characters and arguments in that play about the gay ‘scene’ and promiscuity. Over and over in his notebooks he took the ‘non-monogamy’ position of Coming Clean’s Greg:

The thesis is that gays shouldn’t regret their lifestyle prior to Aids.

Non-monogamy – show it as a positive way of life, warts + all.

Remember, I’m not only showing gays being lustful + potentially promiscuous, but they’re being so at a wake of a guy who’s died of Aids! This is a good, exiting idea – don’t be despondent.8

Handwritten notes on lined note paper
Elyot imagining a production, when his idea was a sequel to Coming Clean (UBTC, KE/3/19/1, 3 of 6 [n.p.])

A unique Aids play

The knotty question Elyot grappled with here is not so different from the central question in Éric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s, the third film in Six Moral Tales which gives Reg its title: can we reconcile the physical and the moral? As the years passed, Elyot refined his ideas and abandoned the notion of the play as a sequel – and what he ultimately shaped dramatises the terrible new reality of the 1980s, a reality that does not complicate the question for Rohmer’s 1960s characters: the physical can equal death.

Write a gay play for today – the threat of Aids and the ensuing temptation + frustration.9

But – and such dramaturgical subtlety is an improvement on Coming Clean – Aids is never mentioned by name. It hovers in the background as the interconnections between the men become clear to the audience in a paradoxically light-hearted, La Ronde-like fashion.

My Night with Reg is, then, unlike other great Aids dramas of the 1980s and early-90s such as Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: it is not agitprop against government inaction and systemic homophobia. Elyot even went so far as to claim, ‘It’s not “about Aids”. I can’t do that sort of writing.’10

It is, in Alan Sinfield’s words, an ‘unAmerican, unheroic version of AIDS – wry and understated, furtive and thwarted.’11

A serious comedy

And, with its killer lines, funny. The comedy – like all of Elyot’s plays, it can be described as a comedy of manners – upset some sections of the gay press, and in an interview with Elyot in 1998, a scolding Gay Times quoted a passage from Edmund White’s 1987 article ‘Aesthetics and Loss’:

Avoid humour, because humour seems grotesquely inappropriate to the occasion. A sniggering or wise-cracking humour puts the public (indifferent when not uneasy) on cosy terms with what is an unspeakable scandal: death. […] Humour suggests that Aids is just another calamity to befall Mother Camp.12

Since the play’s premiere, other writers have criticised it for political tameness, and anti-queerness: as every character is likely to have Aids, and the final effect is one of loss, it has been accused of being excessively pessimistic or even, as Enric Monforte argues, ‘a metaphor for the erasure of gay subjectivity’ since one by one the characters ‘disappear in a literal sense.’13

But why should My Night with Reg take White’s position concerning Aids and comedy? Why should it take the political position of Kramer or Kushner (both exhilaratingly angry in their landmark plays about heterosexual indifference or hostility towards one of the great health crises of the twentieth century)? There are different kinds of playwrights and plays, different responses to the same human predicaments. As an actor, Elyot had acted in the political theatre of Gay Sweatshop in the 1970s and early-80s, but as a playwright, he could not find meaning through agitprop:

Been there, done that. I enjoyed acting it, but I can’t write it because I find that rather simplistic. Life is too full of shades of grey. Some writers can write a state-of-the-nation piece, or a political work – I can’t. As for writing a ‘gay’ play, like say Normal Heart, I just can’t bear that sort of preachiness. Normal Heart is a terrible play.14

Elyot was a gay man who came of age in the 1970s, and he was dubious of monogamy, and Reg scrutinises what he saw as the necessity of lies in human relationships. It shows gay men who betray themselves and each other – as all human beings do – and these betrayals are dramatised in a camp, funny, knowing diction familiar to many LGBT people. Even in the face of death, the play refuses to preach. Even in the face of death, it refuses to let go of the language of gay sexual liberation that defined Elyot’s characters in the 1970s, and defined Elyot himself.

The meeting of that language with Rohmer’s moral question, in a world complicated by Aids, is authentic: to use that vapid contemporary phrase, it is a meeting forged from ‘lived experience’. ‘If you are writing well,’ Elyot argued, ‘you are touching on something that resonates with you and then it’s a truthful piece of writing.’15 He was evasive when asked whether his plays were autobiographical, but he defended himself to Gay Times:

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.16

Ultimately, Elyot’s position in Reg (and other plays) is a tragicomic position true to himself – and that position is, in any case, Shakespearean. In the words of Alan Hollinghurst,

Elyot himself has gone, but his plays survive, to haunt, to disconcert and, in a favourite line of his from Love’s Labour’s Lost, ‘To move wild laughter in the throat of death.’17

Sometimes, Reg argues, the tragedy of Aids – the pain of any tragedy – can be conveyed by the ways people emerge from their grief, loss and trauma, or fight them, with camp, with wit, with double entendre.

Two front covers of playscript 'My Night with Reg' by Kevin Elyot
Play texts published by Nick Hern Books in 1994 and 2013

Inexpressible loss

And sometimes, there are no words to be found, comic or otherwise, for the sheer scale of the tragedy.

For many words about Aids, important words, we have plays by Kramer and Kushner. For the sense of the inexpressibility of loss in the time of Aids, we have the plays of Elyot; and in the end, I most admire his writing for the same reason as the journalist David Benedict:

The distinguishing mark […] is his rare confidence in leaving things unsaid, allowing the actors to finish the thoughts.18

In My Night with Reg’s final scene, there’s a wonderful example.

Guy is dead, and Daniel has visited John in what is now John’s flat. It is early morning and the birds are singing. Eric, the play’s archetypal gay youth, is in the kitchen making coffee. We know that both Daniel and John have slept with Reg. John has not admitted to his friend his betrayal. We also know – somehow we just know – that both men are likely to have contracted HIV, and that in the play’s unseen Scenes Four, Five, Six, the wakes will continue. The stage direction says the men ‘kiss affectionately,’ then:

DANIEL:  I think I’ll go. I’m suddenly very tired. Apologise to Eric, will you?

JOHN: Yes.

DANIEL goes to the door.

JOHN:  Dan?

DANIEL stops and turns. They look at each other. A couple of other birds have joined in the singing.



JOHN:  I’m pretty tired, too. I haven’t been sleeping too well lately.


DANIEL:  We’ll speak later.19

I will never forget this moment in Roger Michell’s original production. I remember it particularly because of John’s line, ‘I’m pretty tired, too,’ which from the actor Anthony Calf was, to my ears, a primal scream, ringing with subtext:

I want to be honest with you, my dear old friend, honest with you about my betrayal of you with Reg – but I also want to tell you that I think my body is being attacked, that the physical in fact leads to sickness, that my exhaustion tells me I’m dying, are you dying too, what happened to our glorious youth, Dan, help me please, my dear old friend, poor Guy, what are we all going to do?

It takes courage to write like this – to keep so much unsaid – even though such dialogue holds a mirror to the games of intimation, elusion, allusion and self-delusion that human beings play every single day of our lives.

Anyone interested in playwriting, or how plays reflect life, should study the passage: it’s a superlative example of less is more, of showing not telling, of Elyot’s great talent at compassionately and truthfully depicting flawed human beings trying to come to terms with things outside of their control.

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

1 Sebastian Born, email to me, 7 March 2024.
2 University of Bristol Theatre Collection (UBTC), KE/3/19/1, 1 of 6, p. 105.
3 Kevin Elyot, My Night with Reg (London: Nick Hern Books, 1994), p. 24.
4 Ibid, p. 23.
5 Ibid, pp. 5, 16.
6 UBTC, KE/3/19/1, 4 of 6, p. 41.
7 UBTC, KE/3/19/1, 1 of 6, p. 133.
8 UBTC, KE/3/19/1, 5 of 6 pp. 16, 49, 56.
9 UBTC, KE/3/19/1, 3 of 6 [n.p.].
10 Elyot to David Benedict, ‘Theatre: National debut? Time to put the record, er, straight’, Independent, 12 January 1998.
11 Alan Sinfield, Out on Stage: Lesbian and Gay Theatre in the Twentieth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 328.
12 Edmund White, quoted in James Cary Parkes, ‘A comedy of terrors’, Gay Times, January 1998, pp. 16-17 (p. 17), UBTC, KE/3/23/5.
13 Enric Monforte, ‘English Gay/Queer Theatre in the 1990s: Kevin Elyot’s My Night with Reg and Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking’, Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingleses, 54 (April 2007), pp. 195-206 (p. 201).
14 Elyot to Veronica Lee, ‘Putting “Reg” to bed with a bit of mouth-to-mouth’, [n.p.; perhaps The Times] [n.d.], interview at the time of Mouth to Mouth, 2001, UBTC, KE/3/26/5.
15 Elyot to Lee.
16 Elyot to Parkes, p. 17.
17 Alan Hollinghurst, Introduction to Elyot, My Night with Reg (London: Nick Hern Books, repr. 2013), p. 8.
18 Benedict.
19 Elyot, My Night with Reg (1994) p. 81.

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.

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.

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:


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.