Obituary: Kevin Elyot, playwright

Kevin Elyot: Talented playwright and screenwriter best known for My Night With Reg
Kevin Elyot: Talented playwright and screenwriter best known for My Night With Reg
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Born: 18 July, 1951, in Birmingham. Died: 7 June, 2014, in London, aged 62

Kevin Elyot won acclaim as the writer of one of the most significant plays about AIDS. My Night With Reg transferred from the Royal Court to London’s West End in the early 1990s and provided an incisive comment on the illness that was then ravaging society. Elyot’s play was a tragicomedy with its roots in the best traditions of the drawing-room comedy, and explored the couplings (and de-couplings) of various homosexual liaisons. Elyot’s masterstroke was that, although Reg was much mentioned, he never appeared on stage and his death from AIDS made an electrifying ending to the drama.

My Night With Reg was labelled a “gay play” but, although Elyot concentrated on gay relationships, the real drive of his narrative was the desire for companionship and coping with loneliness.

Kevin Elyot (born Kevin Lee) was a keen pianist as a child and sang in an early performance of Britten’s War Requiem in Birmingham. The family regularly attended RSC productions at Stratford and while a student at King Edward’s School, Birmingham he was a member of the dramatic society, playing Desdemona in Othello. Elyot then studied theatre at Bristol University.

Elyot worked at various London fringe theatres as an actor – notably the King’s Head in Islington and the Bush. He also spent a few years as a member of the radical group, Gay Sweatshop, in the late 1970s visiting the Edinburgh Fringe on several occasions.

In 1982 he submitted to the Bush Theatre a play, Coming Clean, which captured an apparently stable gay relationship beset by infidelities on both sides. It was awarded the Samuel Beckett Award and Elyot joined the literary agency run by the formidable Peggy Ramsay. When Elyot delivered his second play for her approval she tartly commented: “If you are going to write like this, dear, you should take up a hobby, like squash.”

He continued to act with touring companies, wrote radio plays and a well-received adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone for the Swan Theatre in Worcester in 1990. That gained a wider audience when it was seen on the BBC in 1997. Elyot also adapted Ostrovsky’s Artists and Admirers for the RSC in 1992.

In 1993, he contracted pneumonia working as an actor in a tour of Moliere’s Imaginary Invalid and while in hospital sketched out the basis of My Night With Reg. The Royal Court immediately engaged Roger Michell to direct the play.

John Sessions was joined by David Bamber and when it transferred to the West End it was a smash hit winning both the Olivier and the Evening Standard Awards. Hugh Bonneville, now famous as Lord Grantham in Downtown Abbey, took over the role played by Sessions.

Elyot’s next plays were at the National Theatre (The Day I Stood Still, 2001) and Mouth to Mouth in London’s West End. The latter starred the Edinburgh-born actress Lindsay Duncan, who Elyot had known while both were students at Bristol. His last play for the theatre was a delightfully camped up version of Agatha Christie’s

And Then There Were None in 2005. It was directed by Steven Pimlott, and starred Gemma Jones and Tara Fitzgerald.

It was during these years that Elyot recieved several commissions to write adaptations for television. He demonstrated a beguiling insight for both Poirot and Miss Marple – combining a keen sense of the original with a sensitive understanding of the technicalities of modern television.

An early success was the script he and Ruth Rendell provided for the BBC’s No Night is Too Long in 2002. That led to Elyot being commissioned by Granada to script Death on the Nile – one of the most challenging Poirot stories.

Other notablly successful television dramas included Clapham Juntion (2007) which centred on the experiences of several gay men during a 36-hour period in the London suburb of Clapham. It has twice been repeated on Channel 4.

Last year Elyot wrote Riot at the Rite for BBC TV about the events in Paris surrounding the first night of Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring. Elyot’s script captured the drama and chaos of the evening with a stunning accuracy and Alex Jennings as Diaghilev and Aidan McArdie as Stravinsky delivered exceptional performances.

Elyot also wrote the script for the film Isherwood and His Kind in 2011, subtly adapting Isherwood’s own memoirs. The drama, starring Matt Smith and Toby Jones, was well received.

One of Elyot’s last scripts was for the final Poirot, screened last year, in which the Belgian detective’s little grey cells took a final curtain call. Elyot’s script was tactful, witty and the series went out with memorable panache.

Kevin Elyot, who had been ill for some years, is survived by his mother and his sister.