A Slice of '80s Gay Life

A Slice of '80s Gay Life
Posted on 29 Jan 2020

The award-winning My Night With Reg - a dark LGBT comedy by the late Birmingham-born Kevin Elyot which follows a group of gay men living through decadent yet frightening times in 1980s London - is being revived by ‘creators of quality queer theatre’ Green Carnation Company. 

Midlands Zone caught up with co-artistic director Dan Jarvis to find out more...

“I think it’s a generational responsibility to keep LGBTQ+ history alive,” says Dan Jarvis, co-artistic director of Green Carnation Company, the ensemble behind a new touring production of My Night With Reg. “The treatment and diagnosis of HIV and AIDS is obviously a world apart from what it was in the ’80s. Back then it was a death sentence; in most cases now, those who are HIV-positive live very long, healthy, happy lives, with no fear of passing the virus on to anyone else. 

“One of the big things we wanted to show in My Night With Reg is that life didn’t just stop during the AIDS crisis. What made Dan Ellis - our other co-artistic director - and I fall in love with the play was that the characters’ everyday lives and interactions with one another felt so accurate in terms of how a group of gay friends would be. We saw ourselves in it and were able to compare each character to one of our friends - it’s so representational. It’s also so important to show friendships, love and happiness, particularly in that 1980s context.

“The ’80s really is synonymous with AIDS for the LGBTQ+ community. Homosexuality had only been legalised in the late 1960s, so for LGBTQ+ people in the 1980s, the sense of freedom was still relatively new. And then this cataclysmic disaster tore through the world. So, My Night With Reg starts out when AIDS is just emerging - it’s more of a rumour. But then, of course, as you go through the decade, the impact is felt more and more by the characters. It’s absolutely a play in which the characters are affected by AIDS - and yet it’s never overtly mentioned. It’s referred to when the characters talk about having to check their bodies for symptoms, it’s in the ‘you’ve got to be careful’ messages the characters send to each other, and you know instantly what they’re talking about without it ever being mentioned. But that’s all done with wit, humour, warmth and a sense of their friendship, which is the joy of Kevin Elyot’s writing.

“Elyot’s writing is incredibly realistic - like a fly on the wall, listening in to other people’s lives. It’s also incredibly funny, but not in a sitcom, slapstick sort of way. The characters themselves are very witty and very dry. Reading or watching the play, you feel like you really know these men intimately. Elyot takes a really political period of time and helps us understand it through the lens of real people’s lives. In the rehearsal room, we quite often compare him to Russell T Davies, who wrote Queer As Folk, of course.”

So what varieties of out-and-proud gay men can we expect to meet in My Night With Reg?

“There are six characters in the play, and they’re all connected to this really mysterious, magnetic figure called Reg. In a similar way to Abigail’s Party, Reg is talked about but never seen so is this invisible seventh character. The entire play is set in the flat of one character called Guy and takes place over the space of five years. Guy (Simon Hallman) is in his 40s, having a bit of a midlife crisis and is a little shy, but at the same time he’s very much the anchor of the play. Two of the others are his long-term university friends, John (Nicholas Anscombe) and Daniel (David Gregan-Jones). John is very privileged and it’s no secret, or spoiler, that Guy very much holds a torch for him. Daniel is the international jet-setter, the camp and outrageous joker of the pack - just a complete whirlwind of energy. There’s also long-term couple Benny (Steve Connolly) and Bernie (Marc Geoffrey), who are a bit of a double act. Benny has a bit of a wandering eye, while Bernie very much wants to enjoy a more domestic life with Benny, so there’s a bit of a comedy of errors there. Then, completing the group is Eric (Alan Lewis). He’s the youngest character, starting off aged just 18. In the opening scene he’s simply a decorator in Guy’s new flat. However, he ends up befriending the group, and even though he’s the youngest, he very much ends up guiding the rest of them through quite a difficult time. Eric is kind of like a guiding voice holding the friendship group together.”

A desire to improve the level of LGBTQ+ representation on regional stages is one of the main reasons Dan Jarvis and Dan Ellis founded Green Carnation Company.

“When I was growing up, I loved going to the theatre, but I just never saw my own identity and experiences reflected on the stage. I think that’s the case for people from many minority backgrounds, not just the LGBTQ+ community. I think we’ve come a long way, but I think there’s still too much of a London-centric focus on LGBTQ+ work. Green Carnation Company started out because my co-director, Dan, wanted to put on a gay play called The Pride, which ended up being our first production. Originally, Cheshire was our intended area, but without naming the city, we were told that a play with that content was too risque for audiences around there, which we just don’t believe at all! We’ve since created our queer theatre identity in Manchester. After we did The Pride, we wanted to take our ideas further and into more regional theatres, so then our current touring model came along with My Night With Reg.”

Dan believes that while there have been numerous breakthroughs inside and outside the arts sector, there are still those who are raining on our pride parade…

“If you look at recent breakthroughs in the military and with LGBTQ+ representation on stage, screen and in other art forms, then we really have come a long way. However, it’s not all good news... there’s been a huge rise in the number of homophobic attacks taking place across the country, there are concerns about the availability and accessibility of HIV-prevention medication PrEP, even though it’s been proven effective, and there’s increased trolling of members of the LGBTQ+ community on social media. So for all the steps forward, there are still massive divisions and things that need addressing - another reason why queer stories are so important in theatre and the wider arts.”

Social stigma surrounding HIV is also still rife, says Dan: “Yes, medically we’ve absolutely come on in leaps and bounds, but there’s still a huge amount of shame around being HIV-positive. The guilt that goes with it, especially with friends and family, is enormous for so many. An artist we really love and speak to quite a lot is Nathaniel Hall. He’s been touring a one-man show entitled First Time that really gets into the whole social-stigma issue surrounding the virus and tackles people’s misconceptions. But the social stigma is exactly why plays like My Night With Reg are so important because, in the UK at least, wider understanding of HIV remains the biggest barrier.”

The cast and creatives of My Night With Reg have been working hard to break down barriers and talk to those affected by HIV about their experiences.

“We’ve worked with George House Trust in Manchester, partly to educate ourselves on the differences between living with HIV in the ’80s and now. We also did a workshop with the Trust’s service users, where we shared bits of script with them and asked for feedback. They then shared their own stories with our actors. We will also have a front-of-house team on the tour, for anyone to approach if their lives have been affected by HIV in any way. 

“In the printed programme for the show, we feature articles from George House Trust and list recommendations for other HIV support charities in the vicinity of the venues that we’re visiting. We’re hoping to produce a short film for digital release as well, in which our cast speak to George House Trust.”

Despite its sometimes heavy subject matter, My Night With Reg makes for an enjoyable and entertaining theatrical experience.

“Whether you identify as LGBTQ+ or not, My Night With Reg is a gorgeous evening spent watching a group of friends navigating a really hard time but ultimately having their love shine through. And it’s beautifully acted by six incredible performers. Plus, the play itself is going to be a visual feast, with lots of neon and other characteristically ’80s styles much in evidence. You’re certain of a wonderful night of drama!”

My Night With Reg shows at Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, from Thursday 12 March to Saturday 14 March.


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