The Theatreguide.London Review
Plague Over England
Finborough Theatre Spring 2008; Duchess Theatre Spring 2009
(Reviewed first at the Finborough; scroll down for review of the Duchess version)
Nicholas de Jongh's new play takes us back more than fifty years, to the time when gay men still called themselves queers and they lived under constant threat of exposure and even imprisonment.
His focus is Sir John Gielgud, who was arrested in October 1953 for approaching an undercover cop in a public toilet, but his net is cast much wider, to encompass many aspects of the gay experience in those dark ages.
And so, mixing real characters with fiction, we see viciously homophobic lawmakers and judges (with the irony that one has a gay son), the private Soho club for well-connected queers, a doctor offering his electric shock aversion therapy as a wonder cure, and the imagined affair of Gielgud's cop and a public school boy.
Gielgud himself was traumatised by the arrest, convinced that his career was over and his friends would all desert him. Neither fear proved valid, but he carried the scars for decades, remaining secretive in his private life and conservative in his choice of roles in an attempt to stay out of the headlines.
De Jongh's play is actually strongest in the non-Gielgud parts, showing the range of coping or non-coping stratagems of 1950s homosexuals.
Some, like West End producer Binkie Beaumont, use discretion and economic power to shield themselves while others, like the judge's son, feel the need to fight the system. An unhappy civil servant is never able to accept himself, even attempting a quack 'cure,' while an ex-pat American feels things are even worse in the States.
Viewing Gielgud from the outside, de Jongh never really captures the depth of the man's shock and despair, and although actor Jasper Britton gets the voice and the physical awkwardness exactly right, he only manages brief glimpses beneath the surface.
His strongest moment is one of the quietest. Filled with fear of how the audience will respond to his first entrance onstage after the arrest, Gielgud stands paralysed in the wings until Nichola McAuliffe as co-star Sybil Thorndike restages the moment to exit and come on with him, assuring him 'They wouldn't dare boo me.'
That actually happened, as did some of the other events, like Binkie Beaumont, after wavering only briefly, deciding not to replace Gielgud in his cast, or the many friends embodied here by one theatre critic sticking by him.
And the play does succeed in conveying how much courage such loyalty took and what a real gift it was to the actor.
With most of the cast doubling and tripling roles, Nichola McAuliffe shines as the quietly kindly Thorndike and the motherly hostess of the Soho gay club, Simon Dutton is strong as both Binkie Beaumont and a hanging judge, and David Burt steals all his scenes, be he bartender or lav attendant.
Tamara Harvey directs fluidly on a set inventively designed by Alex Marker to make the most of this tiny above-a-pub theatre space, though there is every reason to believe the show will soon transfer to a larger venue.
Spring 2009: In October 1953 John Gielgud was arrested for 'importuning for immoral purposes' an undercover policeman in a public lavatory. Nicholas de Jongh's play makes that event the focal point for an examination of gay life in the repressed and repressive 1950s.
The result sometimes plays more like an illustrated history lesson than an involving drama, though it has its touching and even comic moments.
The Gielgud story is inevitably of the greatest interest. Though the actor got off with a small fine, his career might well have been ended by the scandal, and de Jongh shows us how the understanding and brave support of a few close friends got him through the crisis.
Particularly touching is the moment of his first appearance on a London stage after the arrest, when Gielgud stood frozen in the wings until co-star Sybil Thorndike improvised a bit of restaging that let her exit to lead him on, whispering 'They wouldn't dare boo me.'
That actually happened, though most of the rest of de Jongh's play is invented to show a cross-section of gay life.
The romance of a public school boy and a working-class policeman (for the sake of efficiency and irony the same cop who arrested Gielgud) is threatened more by the still-very-real class divide than by its illicit nature. One deeply unhappy man searches for a 'cure' while another reminds us that the repression elsewhere (as in the USA) is even worse.
A rabidly homophobic judge tries not to notice that his son is one of them, while the proprietress and denizens of a posh Mayfair club demonstrate that queer life could be pleasant for those with a modicum of discretion and an abundance of money.
The play was tried out last year in a pub theatre, where the tiny space and multiple doubling of roles gave it a feeling of unity and multi-layered texture that have, unfortunately, been somewhat lost in the transfer to one of the smaller West End theatres.
Here, one senses a thinness to the material, particularly once the crisis of the Gielgud plot has passed and the less interesting parts of the play linger on and slowly wrap up.
If there has been much rewriting since the fringe version it is invisible, and director Tamara Harvey and designer Alex Marker seem mainly to have expanded the original staging to fit the larger stage.
The two central roles have been recast, with Michael Feast capturing Gielgud's essence without too slavish an imitation, letting us feel the man's panic and despair. Celia Imrie doubles as Thorndyke and the gay club's owner, and is perhaps too subdued in both roles, underplaying the actress's warmth and the hostess's vulgarity.
Strong carry-overs from the first production include John Warnaby in the composite role of a supportive Gielgud ally, Simon Dutton as producer Binkie Beaumont, and David Burt in a string of small scene-stealing parts.
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