Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Plague over England

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 24th April, 2009

plagueoverenglandIt’s well over a year since I was last at the theatre — odd, really, when one considers that after I quit Reuters in Brussels in 1974, I spent much of the rest of my time in that city as a theatre critic. Anyway, I was invited to go along to the Duchess Theatre in London this evening — when by chance no pressing political event was taking place — and thus had the chance to see Nicholas De Jongh’s Plague over England.  The drama is based on the real life experience of actor John Gielgud, who was arrested for cottaging in the 1950s, when a horrendous purge of homosexuals was underway. The scandal hit the front pages of the national press, but to their credit, theatre audiences in Liverpool and London gave Gielgud an ovation when he next appeared on stage.

Inevitably, such a play — which was originally written for the more intimate Finborough Theatre in Earl’s Court, before being transferred to the West End — succeeds or fails on the talents of the lead actor. And Michael Feast (who played alongside Gielgud in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land  at the National Theatre in 1975) captures the old thespian’s voice and mannerisms beautifully. There are plenty of jokes — some corny, some camp, some Wildean in their witticism — as well as plenty of pathos.

I only met Gielgud once, when he unveiled a plaque to Oscar Wilde at the back of the Haymarket Theatre, for the Oscar Wilde Socierty, of which I am a Patron. But I loved his collected letters, which were pubished after his death, and theatrical London still rocks with laughter at dinner-table accounts of his famous gaffes, when he could be quite spectacularly rude to people, without, so one is led to believe, intending it.

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