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.