Plague Over England
This gloomy, underlit drama, re-opened at the Duchess Theatre, is a reminder of how recently the gay community was scape-goated by society. Magistrates, policemen, politicians and doctors express opinions so outlandish it seems they must be sending themselves up. But no, they really are voicing what they think, or thought, at the time. The title is a reference to homosexuality by an eminent judge. A roll-call of bigoted establishment attitudes, from the 1950s to the 70s, surrounds the case of Sir John Gielgud, arrested for importuning in a public lavatory in 1953.
Distractingly short scenes in the first half establish a mood of prejudice and ignorance through situations and characters, from ex public school youths to 'rough trade' rent boys. To these are added eminent politicians and recognised showbiz names of the time .
This soundly researched play has two major weaknesses, - it lacks suspense, and it fails to engage sympathy for the main character, except at an intellectual level.
Since the outcome is known -Sir John's career was not ruined by this case of deliberate police 'enticement', one source of drama is arguably weakened, However, the audience could have been surprised when the identity of the decoy was revealed, instead of being told in a previous scene what was going to happen. Again, by way of park benches, a private gay club, theatre dressing rooms, and the aforementioned urinal we become familiar with the world Sir John inhabits, but not his emotions.
It seems to me this is a failure of the writing by author Nicolas de Jongh, rather than of the actors or direction, although it may relate to the 'distant' persona of the deceased actor. Michael Feast makes the best of his underwritten part as the disgraced thesp, with great support from a cast that is all male except for Celia Imrie, equally convincing as Sybil Thorndike and as a flapper-dressed bar owner worried about her licence. David Burt gives sterling and versatile performances as a urinal attendant with a side line in reminiscence, a camp waiter, a newsvendor and a stage door keeper.
The script has its lighter moments, as when a customer tells the bar owner he picked up his apparently under age escort 'in the queue for returns' and in the final scene offstage sounds of a gay parade strike a celebratory note . Sir John regains his confidence and the public applaud him in his new play. The law has been changed. Sadly, these touches of triumph are overshadowed by the appallingly sincere and profoundly ignorant opinions delivered by the great and the good of their day.