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Plague Over England

Plague Over England gets to the West End
Plague Over England
Simon Dutton as Binkie Beaumont and Michael Feast as Sir John Gielgud. (Photo: Keith Pattison)
After a sold out run at the Finborough, Nicholas de Jongh's first play about the arrest of the thespian Sir John Gielgud, Plague Over England, finds a West End theatre. The main role has been recast with Michael Feast, who knew and acted with Gielgud, taking over the role of the actor knight and gentleman of the theatre with the wonderful voice. Nichola McAuliffe is unable to reprise her role as Dame Sybil Thorndike and Celia Imrie steps in. Many of the other characters are intact and the production is largely the same as it was a year ago. It is brimming full of theatrical in-jokes and all the more enjoyable for this as De Jongh tempers his serious points with light wit. (See my original review below)

It is inevitable that this transfer will lose something of the intimacy of the tiny Finborough's staging but there is much to admire in the new and polished set which again spins for some scene changes. The play remains an enlightening and fascinating history of the developments in the twentieth century as gay men discovered acceptance and legality. (It was never illegal for gay women). Again I found the scene where two young men kiss and embrace juxtaposed with some old Tory intoning on his plans for the extermination of homosexuality, both powerful and moving. This was the speech which contained the phrase which forms the play's title.

Feast shows both sides of Gielgud, the shy man humiliated by his arrest and unwilling later to identify with gay pride marches and the charming, sociable man at Vera Dromgoole's Soho drinking den. He may not be as tall as Gielgud but he looks and sounds like him, holding his head back his neck outstretched. I was moved by Jasper Britton's portrayal and again in Feast's performance I felt the isolation and vulnerability of the great actor. Celia Imrie's Sybil is supportive and kindly as she holds his hand to take Gielgud on stage when he freezes for his entrance on the opening night in London of A Day by the Sea after the press led by the Evening Standard, described by producer Binky Beaumont in the play as that "ghastly little gossip sheet", have publicised his ordeal. The Evening Standard currently employs Mr de Jongh as their theatre critic. —Lizzie Loverdige

Production Notes for Plague Over England
Directed by Tamara Harvey
Starring: Michael Feast, Simon Dutton, Celia Imrie
with: Sam Heughan, Hugh Ross, Steve Hansell, Michael Brown, John Warnaby, David Burt, Leon Ockenden
Set Design: Alex Marker
Costume Design: Trish Wilkinson
Lighting Design: James Farncombe
Sound Design: Theo Holloway
Music by Alexander S Bermange
Running Time: Two hours 20 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 0844 412 4659
Booking to 16th May 2009
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge on 25th February 2009 performance at the Duchess Theatre, Catherine Street, London WC2 (Tube: Covent Garden/Charing Cross)
The Original Review

Lust rears its head in so many unsuitable places.— Sir John Gielgud
Plague Over England is written by one of London's foremost theatre critics, Nicholas de Jongh of the Evening Standard. It is a different matter being able to discern excellent playcraft in others from being able to write drama oneself. But de Jongh has not only learnt how to meld scenes and interweave stories but his writing has wit and a natural gift for dialogue. His play, a blend of fact and imagination, is set in 1953 around the arrest of one of Britain's great theatrical knights in a public lavatory in Chelsea for "persistently importuning male persons for immoral purposes".

De Jongh gives us the climate of fear, persecution and prosecution that was the fate of most male homosexuals in London in the 1950s. He shows us the prejudice of the judges and the dirty tactics of the police in securing arrests.

Sir John Gielgud (Jasper Britton) is the victim of a policeman from a special entrapment squad planted to entice gay men into revealing themselves in public lavatories. The practice of picking up a stranger in a public convenience for immediate and anonymous sex is known in England as "cottaging" from the small cottage-like buildings erected as public toilets. Sir John's arrest is witnessed by a student Greg (Robin Whiting) and a later story is the developing love affair— the relationship between Greg, son of a judge, and Terry Fordham (Leon Ockendon), the pretty policeman provocateur.

The play has scenes from the legal system with the comments of everybody from the queer bashing Sir David Maxwell Fyfe (John Warnaby), the Home Secretary, through politicians and members of the judiciary to the grass roots police whose job it was to arrest these vulnerable men. The shame of being caught up in a homosexual scandal is hard to imagine today.

Gielgud gave the name Arthur to the police, his real first name, but the story is jumped on by the Evening Standard and, in a delicately vain moment, Gielgud asks why they used such an unflattering photograph of him. Britain in the mid 1950s was echoing some of the McCarthyite witch hunting of Communists and homosexuals. The defection of the spies, homosexual Guy Burgess and bisexual Donald Maclean, to Russia made the press stress the vulnerability of homosexuals to blackmail by a foreign power, in the same way as decades later there was concern about gay men being employed in the military.

Although Gielgud's is the main story, I appreciated the context it is placed in. An effective scene has Maxwell Fyfe spouting his anti-homosexual speech using the phrase "plague over England" while two men kiss and embrace. The effect is to underline the point that sexuality is about a private, loving and tender relationship between two people and should not be the subject of criminal process.

Nichola McAuliffe plays the kindly Dame Sybil Thorndike, Sir John's co-star and confidante who supports him through the ordeal. (Edith Evans was apparently horrid about it.). His friend, the fictional theatre critic, maybe named for characters in Oscar Wilde's plays. Chiltern Moncrieffe (John Warnaby) is also homosexual and together they go to Queen Mab's, a West End drinking club run by Vera Dromgoole (the origin of whose name I will not speculate on) also played by Nichola McAuliffe. David Burt pops up all over the place as a gay barman at Mab's serving up blue cocktails, a lavatory attendant and other crucial but supporting roles.

Jasper Britton has slicked back his hair and studied not just Gielgud's distinctive voice but his posture as well. At the end of Act One he speaks some lines from Richard II and I could hear the cadence of Gielgud's original. We are told that Gielgud was affected for the rest of his life by the newspaper coverage of the scandal. He was the first really celebrated man to be arrested for a gay offence since Oscar Wilde in the naughty nineties. Britton's performance is unassuming and quietly likeable, upper class and repressed. Simon Dutton doubles as the Judge Percival Lightbourne who makes an about turn in his attitude towards gays by 1975, rather unconvincingly I suspect; also as the theatrical producer, Binkie Beaumont, who despite his flamboyant personality is very concerned at the effect on audiences of Sir John's arrest. But thankfully Gielgud's fans rally round the great man and his ovation when he opens in Liverpool is supportive and noisy as only the eccentric English can surprise in their support of a man down on his luck.

I shall remember Jasper Britton's acting prowess but I shall also reflect on the terrible "cure" being offered by a doctor of using electric aversion therapy to attempt to change a desperately shy civil servant Matthew Barnsbury's (Timothy Watson) sexual orientation. Tamara Harvey's production in the tiny Finborough Theatre never pales and a variety of scenes are created at speed by a carousel of hinged scene drops and the smooth entrances of waiting actors complete with their stage furniture.

De Jongh allows Gielgud's mildly homophobic admirers the optional luxury of believing that he was trapped by a policeman rather than a persistent cottager. Gielgud never took part in the gay marches of the early 1970s. A private man, he did not identify with gay pride.

Some of De Jongh's coincidences and link ups may seem unlikely but they work to create a cohesive drama with a period feel about injustice and I found his play full of variety, poignancy and flair. With religious fundamentalism attacking the rights of homosexuals and women, it's important to look at our civilising progress.

Plague Over England
Written by Nicholas De Jongh
Directed by Tamara Harvey

Starring: Jasper Britton
With: David Barnaby, Steve Hansell, Simon Dutton, Timothy Watson, Nichola McAuliffe, David Burt, Leon Ockenden
Design: Alex Marker
Costume Design: Penn O'Gara
Lighting: James Farncombe
Music: Jonathan Yesten
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0844 847 16422
Booking to 22nd March 2008
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 1st March 2008 performance at The Finborough Theatre, Finborough Road, London SW10 (Tube: Earls Court)

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