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.
Writer Nicholas de Jongh is the Evening Standard's famously acerbic theatre critic, and enjoyed the praise of his critical colleagues during Plague Over England's sell-out four-week run at the Finborough. The play was also nominated for a Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers' Choice Award, in the Best Off-West End Production category.
Tamara Harvey directs a cast that includes Michael Feast as John Gielgud (replacing Jasper Britton who played the role in the original Finborough Theatre production last year), Celia Imrie (as Dame Sybil Thorndike and a barmaid named Vera), Simon Dutton, David Burt, Leon Ockenden, Hugh Ross, John Warnaby, Steve Hansell and Sam Heughan.
Last night’s discussion – which also involved Sam Heughan and Leon Ockenden, who engage in a steamy sex scene during the play - took place in the theatre immediately after the performance and was chaired by Whatsonstage.com editorial director Terri Paddock. For more photos and feedback, visit our Outings Blog and for details of upcoming events, click here. Edited highlights from the Q&A follow.
We also recorded the discussion in full if you’d like to listen to more. The highly entertaining Q&A audio file includes saucy anecdotes about onstage sex, Celia Imrie’s striptease, how good reviews can be as harmful as bad ones, and memories of Sir John and Dame Sybil.
On why de Jongh wanted to write this play
Nicholas de Jongh: It wasn’t so much wanting to write a play … I don’t know where it came from this sudden idea after Gielgud was dead. I suddenly had this idea of a public schoolboy, a judge and a lavatory attendant, these three streams of consciousness. And I just wrote them down on my computer. I read them to a very bright actor I know, and he said I think that’s fascinating go on. And I did and this emerged.
On whether he could have written it while Gielgud was still alive
De Jongh: I don’t think I possibly could… I could never have written it. It would have been horrifically embarrassing and awful. He would have loathed it. The idea was not to write a play which he would be posthumously embarrassed about at all. I wanted to show Gielgud as a victim of those oppressive times and that he was made by the period. And the fact that he was addicted to anonymous or impersonal sex in lavatories is not a comment on him at all. It’s a comment on the savage and barbaric times he grew up in as an adolescent. When he came to this great crisis in his life, I think he behaved with terrific stoicism courage, grace, and dignity, I wanted to show that and not in any way to condemn or judge him.
On whether having a play produced has changed de Jongh’s approach to reviewing others’ work
De Jongh: Do I write nice kind reviews now? No. But yes, yes, it has entirely (changed my perspective) … This experience here on the West End felt like the real painful thing. It was quite awful. I don’t mean it in a negative sense at all, but it was agonising. The whole commercial process is very difficult and very daunting. I have a lot more humility in terms of what everyone has to do to make a West End straight play happen. But … making me write only kind nice reviews on my knees to everyone - no!
On reading reviews of his own play
De Jongh: I had no intention of reading the bad reviews, and I didn’t. Two people wrote negative reviews, and I despise those two people anyway. The rest of them wrote very nice reviews and I sort of skimmed some of them. But it doesn’t matter. I know what I feel is right and what is wrong about what I did, and to be quite honest I don’t give a fuck about them.
On working with such a famous critic
Tamara Harvey: “Nick’s very passionate in his reviews either way so, if you get a passionately enthusiastic one, that’s great, and if you get a passionately unenthusiastic one, that’s horrible. But that’s what we do, we put our work out there. And also, he puts his name to it.
Celia Imrie: “We all dread him. But it’s rather wonderful if he does think you’re okay, because he doesn’t mess about … The only reason I’m doing this play is so he doesn’t give me another bad review!