Like the eponymous Godot in Beckett’s drama, we never meet the eponymous Reg in Kevin Elyot’s play, but boy does he make an impact. Nearly everyone we meet is in thrall to the elusive Reg: most have spent a night with him, two are deeply in love with him, and, as Elyot’s delicately crafted 1994 play unfolds, his symbolic significance shifts and changes. The play is set amid a group of gay friends over four years during the 1980s and the spectre of Aids lurks, with Reg, in the shadows. Elyot doesn’t confront Aids directly, however – rather he shows how cruelly it accentuates the fragility of love and the remorseless passage of time. His play is often wickedly funny, but the funnier it becomes, the sadder you feel – a balance beautifully controlled in Robert Hastie’s touching and superbly acted revival.
The symmetries in the play only serve to heighten the changes. Each act is set in Guy’s fastidiously tidy flat; each is a gathering of the same characters. But the first is a housewarming party, the subsequent two are funerals. And with each, the complex web of friendship, betrayal and longing established in the first act, takes on more poignancy.
At the play’s heart are Guy, Daniel and John, friends since university, now drifting inexorably towards middle age. At their first reunion they slip, gleefully, back into the carefree playfulness of their younger days. But behind all the exuberance lurks sadness and unease. Daniel, once promiscuous, is now living with Reg and deeply in love with him. John, handsome, charismatic and unreliable, is also besotted with Reg. Guy, meanwhile, has loved John since university but can’t summon the courage to tell him. Julian Ovenden subtly catches John’s boyish charm, just beginning to curdle, and the emptiness beneath; Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Daniel, flamboyant, fun and generous in the first act, is poleaxed by grief in the second; and Jonathan Broadbent brilliantly conveys the lonely pain of Guy, the plain, reliable friend in whom everyone carelessly confides.
There are lovely performances too from Richard Cant as the gawky, astonishingly boring Bernie, Matt Bardock as his bluntly spoken boyfriend and Lewis Reeves as the decorator, whose youth throws the stings of middle age into greater relief. Twenty years on, Elyot’s play proves to be a humane, timeless piece about friendship, ageing, unrequited love and death. The great, sad irony is that his death in June prevented him from seeing this tender, funny and moving revival.