Constant Reader I have been remiss in keeping you up to snuff on my latest theatre visit.
On Wednesday Owen and I took advantage of a lastminute.com offer of cheapo seats to see PLAGUE OVER ENGLAND at the Fortune Theatre written by Evening Standard theatre critic Nicholas de Jongh.
We were at the end of the 4th row and when I stood up in the interval and turned and saw a mass of red velvet seats, I realised why ours were discounted so much.
It's a shame if it is not finding an audience as it's a well-written play with some enjoyable performances. I suspect the subject matter might not be your standard Avenue fare telling as it does of the 1953 arrest of Sir John Gielgud in a gents lav off the Fulham Road. I had a vague knowledge of the incident so it was good to find out what really happened.
1953, John Gielgud has recently been knighted and is in rehearsals for a new play by the then-fashionable N.C. Hunter called A DAY BY THE SEA with Sybil Thorndike, Ralph Richardson and Irene Worth. It is also a period when it was a dangerous time to be a homosexual with heightened press hysteria spurring on police and politicians to be seen to be doing something about this "plague over England".
After a night on the town he stops off at a cottage off the Fulham Road and after responding to the wink from a young guy at the urinals he goes over - a big mistake as this is a plainclothes policeman who arrests him for "persistently importuning for immoral purposes" - the catch-all accusation used for arrested men.
He is relieved the desk sergeant gives him an early court slot to stop the wider public finding out but soon finds out the police have tipped off the Evening Standard as his arrest makes front page news in the lunchtime edition. John is then confronted with the possibility of losing all he has worked for and facing a public humiliation on his opening night.
As has become theatrical history, on his first entrance during the play he was cheered to the rafters. However he had come close to losing the backing of the producer 'Binkie' Beaumont, himself a known homosexual. The play ends in 1975 with Gielgud ruefully acknowledging that he can now portray an obvious gay character on stage in a new Pinter play.
I enjoyed the play and found it illuminating on this period of gay history. de Jongh has an ear for theatrical cattiness and tells his story well with an eye to the outer world as well as the west end. There are two problems I had with the play however - to balance the Gielgud story he has two subplots of young gay men finding out that love is hard to find in the legendary twilight world of the homosexual which are fairly predictable and give the impression that no gay man ever found happiness back then. He also rather muffs the end of the play, bypassing a good opportunity for a closing scene with Gielgud sharing a drink with his critic friend who he secretly loved when they were younger - instead opting for a long and fairly pointless scene where Gielgud returns to the gents on it's last day of opening. It seemed to be striving for a profundity which isn't really there. Director Tamara Harvey could have shaped this better.
de Jongh does however provide a marvellous role for Michael Feast as John Gielgud, who in turn gives a remarkable performance. He captures Gielgud's hauteur, his ramrod posture and the whinnying unique voice but he also portrays a man suddenly facing a world of rejection and shame with touching grace-notes. Michael Feast is the perfect actor for this role - he appeared with Gielgud in NO MAN'S LAND, the same play the onstage Gielgud accepts at the conclusion.
Feast is supported by a trio of winning performances: Celia Imrie as a loving and supportive Sybil Thorndike as well as a louche theatrical owner of a gay private club; Simon Dutton as a cagey, slippery 'Binkie' Beaumont and David Burt in a succession of roles but primarily as the attendent in the gents who brings to this insubstantial role a suggested world of stunted loneliness.
Hugh Ross also scores with his cameo of a brisk-mannered doctor happy to give gay men electric shock therapy to 'cure' them. The other actors are all fine but are hampered by having to double-up roles - one has to play a gay American cruiser who dashes off to reappear as the inspector in charge of the entrapement. Just one more actor in the cast would have helped. A special mention to Alex Marker for his standing set which easily suggests a Victorian gents, a dressing room or Westminster flat.
I recommend PLAGUE OVER ENGLAND though for anyone who wants a view into what should be a vanished world but for a lot of people is ever-present.