Twenty years ago, the late Kevin Elyot picked up best new comedy at the Olivier awards for this study of gay men in London, all nudging into middle-age. Its humour – camp, gleeful and infectious as it is – now feels a touch dated, but Robert Hastie's fine revival, first seen at the Donmar Warehouse last summer, proves Elyot's real mastery was for melancholy.
Set in Guy's new apartment – first at his flat-warming, then at a wake held for the eponymous and, it turns out, promiscuous Reg – Elyot's play throws together five old friends and a young painter-decorator, Eric (Lewis Reeves), all of whom slept with the deceased at some point or other. Daniel (Geoffrey Streatfeild), Reg's long-term partner, leans on uni-mate John (Julian Ovenden) for support, unaware that he and Reg had been lovers for the last nine months. All the rest were casual, one-off flings, but John's was love – and, what's more, it was reciprocated. (The same can't be said of Guy's own 15 year-old feelings for John.)
My Night with Reg reveals how rare and precious a thing love is: for two people to comfortably co-exist, content in each other's company. For all the genuine bonhomie and affection between them, these five friends can't stand being alone with one another. The moment they find themselves one-on-one, someone makes their excuses. Guy scuttles off to the kitchen; John holes himself up in the loo. They grab breaths of fresh air, sink tumblers of scotch or offer the host a helping hand. Anything to escape.
The alternative is sex – and with the spectre of AIDS in the background, the image of young old men laid up on their deathbeds, there's a sense these men fuck to prove they've got pulses. Or perhaps, they're just playing at love: going through the motions as if the act might somehow spark the feeling.
There's so much unspoken beneath the surface: rivalries, secrets and jealousies; love, lust and loneliness. Elyot's impeccably-drawn characters get performances to match, and both casting and costuming are so pinpoint, you can read these men even when their backs are turned.
Jonathan Broadbent, dressed like a five-year old at his bestie's birthday party, finds all the tragedy of Guy's timidity. He makes his move on the amiable Eric like an arachnophobe tackling a tarantula, and yet plumps his new cushions as if the whole world depended on it. His seems an awful waste of a life.
Ovenden has the boyish ease of a man who, though pushing 40, still hurls himself at furniture, but lets the anxiety of aging seep through. Streatfeild's Daniel is a shell of a man: maintaining his usual flamboyance, but utterly broken inside. There's strong support from Matt Bardock and Richard Cant as the mismatched Benny and Bernie; one pent-up with frustration, the other – with his short sleeves and sad eyes – boring for Britain. Elyot's play does the opposite: it's a play to make you seize your days.
My Night With Reg runs until 11th April. Click here for more information and to book tickets.