Michael Feast, Celia Imrie, Simon Dutton, David Burt, Hugh Ross, John Warnaby, Michael Brown, Steven Hansell, Sam Heughan, Leon Ockenden
As chief theatre critic of the Evening Standard, Nicholas de Jongh’s day job was always going to play a part in how critics responded to his first full length play.
Plague Over England debuted at the Finborough in Earl’s Court last year and most of the notices it received were kind, though the critics took pains to remain even-handed in their assessments.
The production proved successful enough to warrant a move to the West End and it feels quite at home in the Duchess Theatre, which while clearly considerably larger than the Finborough, is about as intimate as it gets in the West End.
Plague does a number of things, some with more success than others. It tells the story of John Gielgud’s arrest at the age of forty nine in a public lavatory, to be charged with ‘persistently importuning male persons for an immoral purpose.’ This was a distressing episode in the actor’s life and one he feared would end his career, but while he did face a degree of hostility, the public’s response was kinder than he’d anticipated.
This incident is woven into a more complex portrait of Britain of the 1950s, a time when homosexuals were criminalised and hounded by the police, forced to socialise behind close doors in private bars and to hide behind lies, a time when men resorted to extreme aversion therapies in order to find a ‘cure’ for their condition.
A further narrative thread is introduced featuring the gay son of a prejudiced judge and his relationship with the young policeman who arrested Gielgud. Though de Jongh captures Gielgud’s world well, the relationship between the two young men is rather thin in comparison. One memorable scene has the pair making love while at the same time the Home Secretary stalks the stage rehearsing a speech in which he attempts to reassure the public of the government’s stance against homosexuality: the ‘plague’ of the title. While the contrast is successful on one level it also stands as a reminder of how little the audience gets to know these two: they are there to serve a narrative purpose and never feel like fully formed characters.
The script is full of in-jokes. Much is made of the fact that it was the Evening Standard that broke the story of Gielgud’s arrest and there are a couple of digs at slumbering theatre critics (an accusation that has been levelled at de Jongh in the past). But a little more depth and development of character would have been preferable to these witticisms. The pacing is also rather odd, with the staging of the first half in particular feeling plodding and old fashioned. This is remedied somewhat in the second half, but things twist around again in the final scenes which have a strange, dreamlike quality that is at odds with what has gone before. These scene do however feature an intriguing blurring between past and present, something that could perhaps have been taken further.
Replacing Jasper Britton, Michael Feast does a decent enough job as Gielgud and Celia Imrie (stepping in to Nichola McAuliffe’s role) is reliably entertaining as both Gielgud’s friend Sybil Thorndike and the blousy gay bar owner, Vera Dromgoole; the production also benefits from some strong ensemble playing from the remaining cast members who juggle a number of roles between them.
From a historical perspective this is an often fascinating, often poignant piece. It provides an insightful tour through a world where people were forced to hide their true selves or face persecution. While Alexi Kaye Campbell’s The Pride, recently staged at the Royal Court, covered similar ground but in a more emotionally raw manner, de Jongh’s play has different strengths, particularly when Gielgud is the focus: those are the scenes that stick.