Review – Plague Over England by Nicholas de Jongh, Finborough Theatre

Wednesday 5 March 2008

Well, what a disappointment.

Not the play. That was fine.

But the critical reception? Very disappointing.

It seemed like madness on the part of the irascible Evening Standard theatre critic Nicholas de Jongh to write a play and have it reviewed by his peers/sworn enemies/jealous rivals.

But that is what he has done and the critics have – rather disappointingly – received it very fondly.

Perhaps after all there is honour among critics and an unspoken code which dictates that you don’t rain on your neighbour’s parade or something like that. Who knows? Maybe they are all secretly scribbling their début plays in the back of their notebooks while pretending to enjoy The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other and dreaming of their name in lights. It would certainly explain a lot.

Anyway, Plague Over England at the Finborough Theatre is centred around the arrest in 1953 of Sir John Gielgud in a Chelsea public lavatory or cottage. Although he didn’t actually (on this occasion) “do” anything or anyone, he was entrapped by a pretty policeman and pleaded guilty to the charge of “persistently importuning men for immoral purposes” in court the next morning.

The result was a scandal which Gielgud feared would mean the end of his career. This, after all, was an England in which homosexuality was illegal and even theatre folk pretended to be straight and people bought it because the alternative was too revolting to even be considered.

De Jongh’s exploration of gay shame in the 1950s shadows two man-on-man relationships (one involving the pretty policeman, here played suitably prettily by Leon Ockenden).

A top notch cast delivers some excellent performances – especially Jasper Britton (brother of Fern, son of Tony) who manages to exude John Gielgud without resorting to caricature. The Whingers were also impressed with Nichola McAuliffe who delights both as Sybil Thorndike and gay club hostess Vera Dromgoole.

De Jongh’s writing is witty and entertaining and he back-foots criticism by mentioning critics who fall asleep in the theatre and referring to the Evening Standard as a “nasty little gossip sheet”, thus covering his back (no gag intended) for those who might be disposed to diss either his habits or his employer.

Praise too from the Whingers for director Tamara Harvey – not only for drawing out such creditable performances but also for preventing the many, many, many changes of scene from breaking up the flow of the evening. No mean feat. And some cunning scene transformations courtesy of designer Alex Marker.

It was not – of course – an evening entirely free of complaints: unallocated seating etc etc. And Phil thought that at 2½ hours (almost the same running time as George Windbag Shaw’s Major Barbara) it was at least an hour too long, not least because the Finborough’s manky auditorium seems to be designed with discomfort in mind: “Five people per bench! Five people per bench!” shouted the usher, ignoring the obvious fact that the benches are only big enough to seat four people. Phil was understandably grumpy that he was forced to set his oxygen canister and hat boxes on the floor in front of him.

Phil also thought de Jongh should have concentrated on the central story about Johnny G and not tried to fit in the so much history of queer Britain; in Phil’s “director’s cut” all the extraneous sub-plots and romances would have been ditched too and the remaining ones subjected to a firm red pencil. Did no-one say anything to de Jongh? Were they too scared? Pity the Standard sub-editors who presumably have to cut his 5,000 word reviews down to 300.

Some of the scenes that could have gone included the training of the pretty policeman and the minor character going for aversion therapy. The obsession with secondary facts at times bordered on the Bonnie Greer-ish.

But that’s unkind. Mr de Jongh does at least show, rather than tell. And he very wisely uses the programme to reproduce his exhausting history of homosexual legislation from 1102 to 2005 rather than cramming it all into the play.

Perhaps some of it just came too close to home for Phil; certainly he seemed to wince at the wistful line “If only we aged beautifully, like trees.”

Andrew on the other hand – having been fingered as “persistently importuning” the bar staff for bottle after bottle of red wine before the show – seemed (to Phil, anyway) to have left his critical faculties on the Finborough’s doorstep next to the potted plant. He enjoyed just about everything about it although he did find himself a little unnerved in the toilets during the interval, studiously avoiding eye-contact lest he should be misconstrued and as a result missing the porcelain with unfortunate results.

And on the subject of porcelain: Phil was having another of his Howard Hughes days and was alarmed to see so much flagrant and unnecessary touching of the urinals (Indeed, is there such a thing as necessary touching of a urinal?) on the stage. The toilet attendant even wiped the porcelain with a cloth which he put straight into his pocket – Phil was more shocked by this than any other shenanigans de Jongh presented on the stage.

When snippets of plays are presented within plays, the Whingers’ first response is to wish they were seeing the snippeted play but the Finborough has thought of everything: the play we tantalisingly see being rehearsed by Gielgud and Thorndike – A Day By The Sea by N.C. Hunter – will be staged at the Finborough later this month.

So, all-in-all, and disappointingly, de Jongh has made a very respectable fist of things. But no matter: he has inspired the Whingers. Look out for their new musical about Peter Wyngarde coming to a bus station near you very soon.

Plague Over England is now sold out (although the Evening Standard had a 2-for-1 offer in it today) thanks to the publicity the play has attracted. And judging by the laughter with which the line “Victoria Station. The line is immaterial” was greeted, those tickets have been sold to a very theatrical audience.

No matter. Just drop by to the Finborough anyway and do a bit of star-spotting.

The publicity-shy Whingers were ambushed not only by Mark Shenton (left)…

Then there was Neil, Sue, Alex, Oliver, Adele, City Slicker and Helen Smith.

… but also by Toby Young (right).

Quite a night.

6 Responses to “Review – Plague Over England by Nicholas de Jongh, Finborough Theatre”


  1. You may find it interesting (or you may not) or significant (but I couldn’t possibly comment) that the two least positive reviews are from non-critics: three stars from writer and former actor Paul Bailey in the Standard itself, and two stars from my own commissionee, director Alex Ferguson in the FT. No, I didn’t brief him to stick the knife in.

  2. Sue Says:

    I am surprised that you do not mention the fascinating people-watching opportunities toward the end of the evening when there were partially-disrobed actors downstage during a fully-clothed conversation upstage. Several of the audience members opposite me were studiously staring at the latter, possibly to avoid the appearance of fixating on the former.

  3. Kieron Says:

    Am off to London soon, as a rule i see two musicals and a play. What would the whingers suggest??


  4. @ Keiron – well, there are one or two clues scattered around our reviews, but if you’re finding them too inscrutable…

    There is only one musical in town – Hairspray – so see that and two plays, just for a change. Dealer’s Choice and Major Barbara.

    There. Easy.

  5. david hoyle Says:

    Hi
    Will this play go on tour, maybe to the STARVED Northwest
    David

  6. JohnnyFox Says:

    Probably not, but it has pitched up in a STARVED NORTH WEST corner of the Aldwych – in the Duchess Theatre – and I suspect with a more elaborately mechanical set than it could have had at the Finborough which makes the action slick and the running time shorter.

    Much enjoyed it, the characterisations are good – now with Michael Feast as an even more lookalike-soundalike-almost-a-caricature Gielgud, and perhaps not so much improved by Celia Imrie replacing McAuliffe as Sybil Thorndike. Sybil was barking, and I think McAuliffe would have caught that better, Imrie is merely fey.

    How interesting that the Lyric theatre should have been re-named the Gielgud, despite Sir John’s notoriety (or possibly because of it since the place is owned by Cameron Mackintosh) whereas Leatherhead has now taken the otherwise unblemished Thorndike name off its frontage.


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