Following its acclaimed debut at the Finborough theatre last year, Plague over England, the first play from famously acerbic Evening Standard critic Nicholas de Jongh, transferred to the West End this week, opening at the Duchess Theatre on Monday (23 February 2009, previews from 12 February).
Set in 1953, Plague over England centres on the actor John Gielgud when, at the height of his fame, he was arrested in a Chelsea public lavatory. He pleaded guilty the following morning to the charge of persistently importuning men for immoral purposes. Poised to appear in the West End in a play he was directing and recently knighted, his conviction caused a national sensation – breaking the great taboo of public discussion of homosexuality.
Michael Feast plays Gielgud, replacing Jasper Britton who played the role at the Finborough. The cast also features Celia Imrie as Dame Sybil Thorndike and Simon Dutton as infamous impresario Binkie Beaumont in a production directed by Tamara Harvey.
Much like at the Finborough last year, de Jongh's critical counterparts were generally impressed by their colleague's first theatrical offering. A raft of four stars adorned the papers as de Jongh himself enjoyed a night off from his usual duties. His Evening Standard colleague Johann Hari stepped in, and didn't hold back in his praise of de Jongh's “terrific” first play. There were references by some to the script being more akin to a “telly play”, but most were agreed that the “touching” examination of Gielgud's public trauma made for an engrossing evening of theatre. And the “outrageously underrated” Michael Feast can rest easy in the knowledge that most critics preferred his take on Gielgud to that of his predecessor in the role.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – “Tamara Harvey’s production looked over-stuffed and enjoyably vivacious in the tiny Finborough last year, but seems bitty and unfocused on the Duchess stage, deficient in dramatic texture, smacking of a television script. The skittish, willowy Gielgud of Jasper Britton has been succeeded by the equally brilliant, very different Sir John of Michael Feast … His killingly exact observation – the very tilt of his head, the mellifluent voice, the sly twinkle – compensates for his over-shortness of stature, while Celia Imrie - ditch the wig, love - plays a nice double of a no-nonsense Sybil Thorndike and a blowzy hostess in the gay drinking club without the edge or bite Nichola McAuliffe managed last year.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) – “Jasper Britton, who played the role when the play surfaced at the little Finborough last year, is a fine actor yet struck me as emphasising Gielgud's mannerisms at the expense of his vulnerability; but Michael Feast, who replaces him in the West End, has got the balance right. You don't doubt either that you're seeing Sir John's profile and hearing his voice - or that you're witnessing his disbelieving panic when he's arrested, his fear for his career, his pain and, maybe above all, his touching innocence … Britain has changed, if a bit too late for the Gielgud generation. All credit to de Jongh for telling us this in so lively, arresting a play.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) – “Plague over England, first seen on the fringe last year, has now confidently moved up West and seems just as impressive, just as touching, the second time around. De Jongh, who can sometimes seem harsh in print, here reveals a warm and even sentimental heart. Equally importantly he displays an assured touch as a dramatist … Occasionally de Jongh's satire of crusty establishment types … seems a touch heavy-handed. And having not one but two subplots involving the graphically represented love lives of hunky homosexual men perhaps indicates greedy voyeuristic tendencies on the part of the playwright. But the play constantly proves touching, entertaining, with a sharp period flavour and a real sense of ensemble among the busily doubling.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “Admired last year at the Finborough, Nicholas de Jongh's fine play about the homophobic 50s has transferred with all its vital organs intact … Admired last year at the Finborough, Nicholas de Jongh's fine play about the homophobic 50s has transferred with all its vital organs intact … At times, the play is almost too neatly symmetrical: both Maxwell Fyfe's private secretary and the son of a ferocious judge turn out to be gay. And one or two of the fast-flowing gags, including the home secretary's cry of of ‘Sex! sex! I'm not having it’, have seen better days. But de Jongh captures with vividness the contradictions of the 50s … Feast beautifully conveys the unworldly innocence that leaves Gielgud unable to cope either with police procedures or the velvet tyranny of the commercial impresario, Binkie Beaumont.”
Johann Hari in the Evening Standard (four stars) - “In his terrific first play, he (de Jongh) sensitively traces a lost world … He manages to pull onto the stage the inner lives of a remarkable range of characters, and only fails in his depictions of the homophobes. They had complex, disturbing motives of their own — but here they are buffoonish caricatures motivated by only idiocy. Of course, Michael Feast has an impossible job playing Gielgud. Nobody can bring back that voice — as pure and seductive as a Caribbean ocean — and nobody can bring back those eyes. But it is an extraordinary tribute that at times, there are flickers of the lost actor.”
- by Theo Bosanquet