Note: This is a slightly delayed review of the performance on Saturday 6th September 2014.
There's a moment towards the end of this play which is breathtakingly beautiful and utterly heartbreaking. Struggling to come to terms with a tragedy, Daniel (Geoffrey Streatfeild) puts on a record called Breakfast Disco and he and John (Julian Ovenden) dance for a few moments as if, by that physical action they can turn back the clock to one moment at university when a bond of friendship between three men was formed. Recapture that joyous carefree moment, escape the pain that they've since suffered. We know and they know that it's impossible, that the heartbreaks characters and audience have been subjected to cannot be undone, but that dance both brave and desperate longs for the world to be otherwise.
It's a moment that's a remarkably long way from where the play starts. At the beginning this is an almost farcical show, as we slowly realise that virtually everyone on stage has been getting off with Daniel's unseen boyfriend, the Reg of the title, without Daniel's knowledge. There's also a touch of the stereotypical at first glance to several of the characters – particularly the flamboyant homosexuality of Daniel, and the obsessive neatness of Jonathan Broadbent's Guy. But one of the clevernesses of Elyot's writing is that even in the often farcical first act there's a care to give human depth to the stereotypes. You think you know these types, the play seems to say, but you don't know these particular people and I shall make you know them.
As the play proceeds the farce and the laughter gradually give way to death and tragedy. The AIDS shadow is simply, shockingly, arbitrarily done – in the cruelest act the least culpable of casual encounters (at least on the immediate evidence before us) is the most punished. But AIDS is in a sense simply one factor in the lives of these characters. Everything in this play starts from these people – their loves, friendships, silences and lies.
In addition to the three superb central performances already mentioned there are fine supporting turns from the odd couple of Richard Cant (Bernie) and Matt Bardock (Bennie) and from Lewis Reeves as Eric the youthful object of various of the others desires. Peter Mckintosh's set is beautifully done – the conservatory is especially well judged – the Donmar as often before lends itself well to the trick of conjuring spaces beyond view. There's also effective work on the lighting side from Paul Pyant. In the director's chair, Robert Hastie in his first solo piece at the Donmar shows a masterful touch conjuring those tensions in touch and space that make for truly great theatre.
Overall, this is a stunning and powerful evening. By the third act there were tears in my eyes. More so than perhaps anything else under Josie Rourke's regime this deserves a life beyond its Donmar run. Astonishingly there still seem to be seats available. Snap them up now, this is unmissable.