Reading Kenneth Tynan’s diaries, it soon becomes clear that, at heart, even a critic of his genius was something of a frustrated luvvie. Maybe there should be no surprise then that the most acerbic of current theatre scribes should feel emboldened to put himself before his peers as a playwright.
A play deserves of course to stand on its own merits, irrespective of the writer’s day job, but there’s bound to be a buzz around whether Nicholas de Jongh should be advised to stick to what he does so emphatically.
What he does in Plague Over England, with a degree of success, is chart a fascinating, if painful, slice of social history, set against the personal near-tragedy of a great actor who underestimated the public’s capacity for understanding and a society’s slow evolution towards acceptance and celebration. De Jongh paints a vivid if episodic picture of an atmosphere in which gay men were persecuted, criminalised, made to undergo torturous “cures” and forced into living a life of deception and self-denial.
John Gielgud’s letters, which were published a few years ago, just after his death, reveal quite how much was going on beneath the urbane surface of the actor’s life and the play takes as one of its themes the conflict between public and private behaviour.
While de Jongh doesn’t disgrace himself, there’s nothing adventurous about the often plodding dramatic structure of his play, which outstays its welcome by a good 20 minutes. There’s an attempt at theatrical boldness in the dovetailing scenes of two young men making love while the pompous Home Secretary rehearses a reassuring speech to the Tunbridge Wells Conservative Association but ironically it smacks more of timidity than flair.
The storyline of the son of a reactionary judge taking up with the young policeman who arrested Gielgud in a public lavatory might have worked in a more stylised piece but creaks in an ostensibly naturalistic one. The final scene hints at ambiguity and even dream-like surrealism but goes no way towards redeeming the playwright’s digs at Samuel Beckett. There are in-jokes aplenty, far too many about critics, and attempts at Wildean wit which fall short, although there is genuine humour when he isn’t trying too hard.
The direction is capable and the ensemble playing strong. Jasper Britton doesn’t quite capture the grandiosity of the Gielgud manner but has a nicely bewildered quality that is moving at times.
What fun it would have been to have invited actors and directors to put aside their usual roles and join in one big jumble of poachers and gamekeepers by critiquing Mr de Jongh’s efforts. Alas, it did not happen. Since the production’s first night, the writer’s colleagues on the national dailies have undoubtedly given him an easy ride, a courtesy they would not have afforded to an unknown first playwright producing work of this quality.
Nevertheless, this is an entertaining evening, a touching tribute to a great but fragile man and a welcome look at a period that may not be 100 per cent behind us but thankfully is largely consigned to the dustheap of history.