The writer Kevin Elyot, best known for his Olivier Award-winning 1994 play My Night With Reg, died last weekend. Here, we pay tribute to Kevin’s life and career, with a look back at Kevin’s early years as a writer, a comment from publisher Nick Hern, and an extract from his most famous play.
Kevin Elyot recalls his Birmingham childhood, his first forays into theatre, and the origins of My Night With Reg.
The choir of St Peter’s in Handsworth, the Birmingham suburb where I spent my early years, consisted of a handful of grownups and myself. On certain Sundays we’d process through the streets with the vicar, carrying a cross, swinging incense and singing hymns. I was quite short at the time. Janet, one of the women, was fairly large. She had a childlike face, curly hair, a kind heart and a simple disposition. She’d regularly plonk herself down next to me in the vestry, both of us in cassock and surplus, and say, ‘Every picture tells a story.’ Then she’d laugh, and I’d smile, but I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about.
My parents often took my sister and me to the theatre: variety bills at the Hippodrome, where the number of the act would be displayed at the side of the stage, and pantomimes and plays at the Rep and the Alexandra. We had a family outing to Stratford when I was about ten to see a matinée of Richard the Third with Christopher Plummer and Eric Porter. That was the start of my love affair with the place: I’d do the hour’s journey on top of the 150 from Birmingham, queue for standing tickets and see shows two or three times. I was addicted, but it was St Peter’s that gave me my first fix.
For the briefest time I was taken into the confidence of Peggy Ramsay, the revered literary agent. In her office in Goodwin’s Court I perched on the sofa, where I fondly hoped Joe Orton had sat, and listened to the gossip and her occasional barbed opinions, sometimes of her own clients.
She’d taken me on after reading Coming Clean, my first foray into professional writing. From 1976 to 1984 I’d acted in several productions at the Bush Theatre, and Simon Stokes, one of the artistic directors, had casually suggested I try my hand at a play. I presented them with a script entitled Cosy, which was passed on to their literary manager Sebastian Born. He responded favourably and, largely through his support, it finally opened on 3 November 1982 under the title Coming Clean. Cosy had fallen out of favour – a pity, as I’d always liked the pun on the opera which plays such an important part. I came up with the present title as a necessary compromise after what had proved to be quite a bumpy ride from acceptance to premiere.
The Bush was the perfect space for David Hayman’s intensely intimate production, as Tony tried in vain to come to terms with his ‘open’ relationship with Greg. These were hedonistic times, when the worse that might happen, health-wise, was usually sorted by a trip to the clinic, where you’d pretend not to recognise each other, alarmingly aged in the cruel light of day, and when AIDS was a barely credible rumour filtering from across the Atlantic. The play’s final scene has an elegiac quality – in retrospect, almost a sense of foreboding. When Peggy saw it, she was in tears. ‘That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen,’ she said, disgorging the contents of her handbag on the floor. From then on, it was downhill.
‘lf you don’t write your next play soon, you’ll never write again,’ she warned. Alarmed, I forced out a piece called A Quick One. ‘Rather than write stuff like this,’ she said, ‘you should take up a hobby, like squash.’ Then I thought I’d try my hand at a radio play, According to Plan, which she insisted she wouldn’t be able to sell. I asked Sebastian Born, by now a literary agent with James Sharkey Associates, if he thought he might be able to sell it, which he did. It was transmitted in 1987 on Radio 4, directed by Pat Trueman, with Sheila Reid, Jean Anderson and Tom Wilkinson. Sebastian became my agent and the manuscript of A Quick One disappeared without trace.
I’ve yet to try my hand at squash.
One evening in the summer of 1993, alone in a house outside Todi, I thought, ‘So this is how it ends.’
The malaise had begun during what proved to be my last acting job – ironically, a tour of Molière’s The Hypochondriac. The gloom of fetching up in wintry, wet Worthing, or Swindon, or Poole, week after week in a fairly dismal show, was compounded by private fear as I obsessively weighed myself, wondering why the pounds were slowly shedding. By the summer, still refusing medical advice, I insisted on holidaying with friends in Umbria, where I spent most of the time in bed, high on fever and a diet of paracetamol. I even took some old antibiotics I’d come across, which brought me out in a fearful rash. My friends took me to a dermatologist, who, when he saw it, muttered, ‘Bestiale,’ and told me to take a blood test at the hospital in Todi. This I did with no intention of finding out the result.
The evening in question, I noticed a storm threatening on the horizon. It reached the house, cutting off the electricity, so I went outside to the fuse box, a pointless exercise even if I hadn’t had a fever. Back inside, huddled up on the sofa in the dark, I thought, for the first time in my life, that this was it. It wasn’t, but things would never be quite the same again.
Within days of getting home I was hospitalised with pneumonia. The love of family and friends, and the exceptional skill of Margaret Johnson and her team at the Royal Free, pulled me back from the brink – also, quietly but insistently, My Night with Reg, already scheduled for production the following year. Though I learnt later how close I was to snuffing it, I never once, after diagnosis, believed that I wouldn’t pull through. Since then I’ve clung to projects almost like fetishes to keep together body and soul.
My Night with Reg had been a long time coming. I thought of the title in 1983, but didn’t write it until nearly ten years later. In the meantime it started to emerge: a David Bowie concert I’d been to at Bristol’s Colston Hall in 1973; listening to ‘Every Breath You Take’ on the roof of an apartment block overlooking Central Park; the death of a dear friend and the funeral of another – gradually the pieces began to fall into place. In 1991 it was commissioned by Hampstead Theatre. In 1993 they passed on it and Sebastian submitted it to the Royal Court. He got a swift response, and Stephen Daldry, in the process of taking the reins from Max Stafford-Clark, scheduled it for Easter 1994 in the Theatre Upstairs. He suggested Roger Michell should direct it, and our first meeting took place while I was still in the Royal Free. And so it moved forward, and I was determined to see it through. What seemed at times to be so nearly an ending proved, in fact, a beginning.
[Extract from the Foreword to Kevin Elyot: Four Plays]
Nick Hern, who published Kevin’s play My Night With Reg alongside its 1994 Royal Court premiere, pays tribute to Kevin’s contribution both to British theatre and NHB:
‘I’ll always be grateful to Kevin Elyot for two principle reasons. One, as the author of some of the wittiest, most poignantly acerbic plays of the 1990s; and two as the inadvertent saviour of Nick Hern Books, which had not long struggled into independent life when My Night With Reg transferred from the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs to the Criterion in the West End where it ran for seven glorious months before transferring again to the Playhouse. Thanks to the Royal Court, Nick Hern Books was supplying the Criterion with programme/texts, and I remember delivering over 5000 copies a month to the stage door throughout the run, thus generating badly needed income for the fledgling NHB.
‘Kevin in person could be as wittily acerbic as his writing. When I read him the draft blurb for a volume of his collected plays which ended, ‘Kevin lives in London near Hampstead Heath’, with a twinkle in his eye he suggested adding, ‘But doesn’t go there much anymore.’’
Finally, an extract from the final scene of My Night With Reg, Kevin Elyot’s Olivier Award-winning 1994 play:
DANIEL. I tell you, the Heath was so muddy, it was like an ice rink. I was doing Sonja Henie impersonations all over the shop. And I lost a lens! I walked into at least half-a-dozen trees. Tried to go down on one of them. But you know how you get – sort of cock crazy. It was more like Harrods’ sale. You’ve no idea! Well, maybe more British Home Stores, but who cares? There were plenty of bargains in plenty of basements. And beautiful! Even though it was pissing down. I was moved to do a snatch of Titania at one point until an overweight biker insisted on chewing my nipples off. There was even an encampment of the homeless sitting round a pile of sodden twigs. It was like Act Three of Carmen. [...] But whatever I do, I can’t get rid of him. Not that I want to, in one sense, but trivial reminders are somehow the most melancholic and I don’t want to be sad. Why should I be? We had a great time together.
My Night With Reg is revived at the Donmar Warehouse, London, this summer, opening on 31 July.