Note: This review dates from February 2001 and the production's original run at the Royal Court Theatre.
There's a seam of such naked intimacy running through Kevin Elyot's work that one often feels as if eavesdropping on very private moments. The slow-burning but devastating emotional revelations in his plays (as well as physical exposure, in the case of My Night with Reg) turn the audience into voyeurs.
His latest play, Mouth to Mouth, receiving its premiere at the Royal Court (where My Night with Reg also originated), is no exception; but it is also an altogether exceptional work, revealing the author to be writing with astonishingly heartfelt grace and heartbreaking maturity about grave and personal matters: illness and loss, friendship and unrequited heartache, love and work.
These are familiar and recurring themes in his work, and he once again employs similar dramatic techniques to before, such as a highly accomplished use of shifting time frames between scenes. On this occasion, these work to not only layer but also fracture the action, with the opening and closing scene taking place in the present and the rest of it working as a flashback from that moment. The play that results is full of intricate patterns, quiet suspense and gathering revelation. It earns its power and charge from being always understated but carefully revealing, as tender as it is truthful, and ultimately as shocking as it is searing.
The play concerns Frank, a middle-aged and physically ailing gay playwright (Michael Maloney) and his best friend Laura (Lindsay Duncan), around whom an everyday family reunion - with the return of her adored teenage son Phillip (Andrew McKay>) from a holiday in Spain and that of her husband's younger brother (Barnaby Kay) and wife (Lucy Whybrow) from living in Australia - turns ultimately to tragedy.
As beautifully directed by Ian Rickson, who did similarly sterling work on Elyot's last play, The Day I Stood Still at the National's Cottesloe Theatre, it feels true throughout. And Rickson's exemplary actors - who also include Adam Godley as Frank's doctor friend and Peter Wight as Laura's emotionally spurned husband - respond to it with performances that ache with the intensity as well as banality of real life.