Plague Over England

Posted on: 06 April 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves

Laurence Green reviews theatre critic turned playwright Nicholas de Jongh’s debut drama Plague Over England.


It depended on just a wink, the vestige of a smile or a lingering look, yet proved a sensational and influential event in gay history. On 21st October 1953 one of Britain’s most eminent actors, the recently knighted John Gielgud, walked into a public lavatory frequented by gay men.

Unbeknownst to him, a “pretty” or undercover policeman was stationed there to entice men to signal indirectly their interest in sexual content. Consequently, Sir John was arrested on charges of importuning for immoral purposes.

This shameful episode forms the basis of theatre critic turned playwright Nicholas de Jongh’s debut drama Plague Over England which has transferred from the Finborough on the Fringe to the Duchess Theatre in the West End.

As news of Gielgud’s conviction is splashed across the national press at a time when judges, politicians and doctors were describing homosexuality in terms of a cancer and a threat to national life – Sir John faces personal and professional ruin. Then something extraordinary happens.

De Jongh offers an intriguing insight into the little known gay witch-hunt in 1950s Britain and the people caught up in it. Indeed the play creates a landscape of gay figures and pressured men, whether in public lavatories, open spaces or private clubs, temperamentally ill at ease in the sexually oppressive Britain of the 50s. this witch-hunt was not simply orchestrated by government, national newspapers, the medical establishment, law officers and police forces. It reflected the anxieties and prejudices of a generation.

However, what is basically a fascinating social history is undermined by scenes which are too short and flimsy characterisation and this has the effect of both weakening the impact of the play and making it seem uneven. It would have been much better if it had concentrated solely on the Gielgud case rather than being “opened up” as an attack on the homophobic society of the time and the players involved.

Director Tamara Harvey extracts a sympathetic performance from Michael Feast who captures the voice, mannerisms and character of Sir John, a man who was a victim of his times but who happily survived them. He receives strong support from Celia Imrie as both Sybil Thorndike and a blousy owner of a gay Soho bar, as well as David Burt, Simon Dutton and John Warnaby.

When: Plays until 16th May 2009
Where: Duchess Theatre, London
Box Office: 0844 412 4659 

By Laurence Green

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