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Plague Over England

Nicholas de Jongh
Duchess Theatre
(2009)

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Evening Standard theatre critic Nicholas de Jongh continues to conquer the London stage in his new career as a playwright. His first full-length play, now partly-recast, has made it into the West End, in the process bucking almost every current trend.

Even when it opened at the Finborough almost exactly one year ago, the idea that a new non-musical play could find a West End berth seemed unlikely, let alone one written by somebody who had never previously penned a full-length work for the stage.

De Jongh has succeeded thanks to a strong, well-crafted script and touching portrayal of a man in crisis due to a legal farce resulting from "an infectious plague over England". That plague was homosexuality and the man, the recently-knighted Sir John Gielgud.

Michael Feast, who at times could be mistaken for the real thing, has now taken over from Jasper Britten in the leading role. The new actor excels, as his character tries to recover from the disgrace of being caught "cottaging" in an immaculately maintained, marble public convenience during Coronation year, 1953.

Simon Dutton as legendary impresario Binkie Beaumont was of limited assistance, despite (or possibly because of) his own proclivities. However, a fictional critic, John Warnaby's Chiltern Moncrieff, and actress Sibyl Thorndike, played by Celia Imrie, show that humanity really does exist.

While the transfer inevitably loses something of the original intimacy, the drama retains the powerful impact that it made at the Finborough. Designer Alex Marker enjoys the greater space available at the Duchess but still uses his trademark economy, a simple crescent of the period embellished by a series of revolving screens to maintain the pace throughout a brisk 2¼ hours.

The story of Gielgud's fall from grace in 1953 is counterpointed by two other affairs, both between pairs of men. One sees the Home Secretary's PPS with a hunky former GI, the other a judge's son and the police agent provocateur who enticed Sir John.

The scenes of love are interspersed with those illuminating the politics of the period on small and large scales, often packed with unintended ironies, such was the stupidity of a law that attempted to suppress behaviour that is now seen as natural.

Tamara Harvey's production perfectly catches the period, helped by an appropriate soundtrack that eventually melts into 1975, courtesy of Pink Floyd. There, even two decades on in a world where Gays were loudly proud, the 71 year-old actor still agonises about whether it was safe to play a homosexual role in Harold Pinter's No Man's Land.

Nicholas de Jongh has managed to combine a psychological picture of one of the greatest actors of his day with a snapshot of a past time in both theatrical and sexual-political terms. He deserves to have a success, with this simultaneously sympathetic and witty play that exposes past hypocrisies to great dramatic effect.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher