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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Duchess Theatre


  Michael Feast and Celia Imrie

For the mischievously minded Nicholas de Jongh's debut full-length play, about the gay scandal surrounding Sir John Gielguds arrest in 1953, caused its own pleasing controversy. Probably inevitable for a drama about a famous actor written by a well-known critic.

Theatre practitioners bruised by De Jongh's reviews rubbed their hands at the prospect of one of London's longest serving critics getting a taste of his own. And so some of them were not best pleased when most &ampampampndash though not all &ampampampndash of De Jongh's colleagues gave his play a thumbs up- not once, but twice.

The first was for the premiere at West London's fringe Finborough Theatre, with Jasper Britton playing the role of Gielgud. The second was for this West End transfer with the always-good Michael Feast replacing Britton as the theatrical knight and Celia Imrie taking on the role of the theatrical dame Sybil Thorndike who was also Gielgud's confidant.

It was this West End version that led to yet more off-stage back-biting when a gay critic took exception to a heterosexual colleague's admission that he found the sight of men kissing each other on stage harder to watch than depictions of rape or torture.

Yet despite all the publicity and positive reviews, Plague Over England is still ending its run two weeks prematurely. Perhaps Tamara Harvey's production too convincingly evokes the dusty fusty 1950s during which David Maxwell Fyfe, the Home Secretary of the day, declared a 'civilised' war on homosexual men.

The action is set mainly in dour, wood-panelled London interiors &ampampampndash the illicit gay drinking club frequented by Gielgud and his critic companion Chiltern Moncrieffe - the government offices where the Home Secretary (John Warnaby) hatches his persecution of homosexuals- the law courts where gay men were preached to and jailed by judges who saw the defendants' sexuality as a plague to be eradicated. And seediest of all is the public toilet run by David Burt's oleaginous attendant which is where Gielgud was arrested for 'importuning&ampampamprsquo, or as it is called these days, being gay.

Still, De Jongh keeps the action moving with a series of short, sharply written scenes featuring subplots about gay lovers - one of whom is the undercover policeman who entrapped Gielgud with a friendly wink.

Feast's Gielgud is a good-natured nalf cautiously re-emerging into London's underground gay scene after securing his knighthood. When the scandal breaks he is, touchingly, the only one who does not know that his sexuality is an open secret among the theatrical fraternity. Feast is best known to American audiences for his Macduff in Rupert Goold's acclaimed production of (Patrick Stewart's) Macbeth, which last year made it to the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Gielgud is in many ways a much harder role to fashion than the Thane of Fife and Feast does an excellent job capturing Gielgud's indignant vulnerability with a performance that is inevitably one part acting and two parts impersonation. The angle of the head - that sonorous plummy voice- even the mannered walk all ring true. But two and a half hours of this gloomy milieu probably explains the play's truncated West End run.

The fringe version, located just down the road from the where Gielgud was arrested, had the added pertinence of local history. Though more valuable still is the lesson in National history served up by De Jongh's play, about a country riddled with plague, though not one called homosexuality, but homophobia.


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