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Previewed 27 February 2008, Opened 29 February 2008, Closed 22 March 2008 at the Finborough Theatre
Previewed 11 February 2009, Opened 16 February 2009, Closed 2 May 2009 at the Duchess Theatre in London
Nicholas De Jongh's play Plague Over England in London featuring Michael Feast as 'John Gieldgud'
In Autumn 1953, Sir John Gielgud, then at the height of his fame as an actor, 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 London's West End in a play he was directing and recently knighted, John Gielgud's conviction caused a sensation, threatened the continuation of his career and helped break the great taboo upon general discussion in the national press of homosexuality. A great national debate began with The Observer newspaper accusing those who spoke out against Sir John of 'speaking in the rabble-rousing tone of the witch-hunt.'
More than just a dramatisation of a scandalous event in one actor's life, the characters in Plague Over England include the Home Secretary, the Lord Chief Justice, a public schoolboy, a pretty policeman and a lavatory attendant, and Nicholas De Jongh suggests that the response to Gielgud's conviction reflected the anxious political and social mood of the time. Britain had begun to follow America's lead in regarding homosexuals as potential security risks, and judges, politicians and policemen expressed alarm at the rise in the number of cases coming before the courts. Gielgud's conviction played a small but distinct part in the long battle to make homosexuality legal.
The cast at London's Finborough Theatre featured Jasper Britton as 'Sir John Gielgud' and Nichola McAuliffe as 'Dame Sybil Thorndike'/'Vera Dromgoole', with David Barnaby as 'Lord Goddard'/'Dr Ambrose Quentin', David Burt as 'Douglas Witherby'/'Brian Mandyville', Simon Dutton as 'Mr Justice Percival Lightbourne'/'Binkie Beaumont', Steve Hansell as 'Detective Chief Inspector Stephen'/'Bellinger'/'Peter Munroe', Leon Ockenden as 'Police Constable Terry Fordham', John Warnaby as 'Chiltern Moncreiffe'/'Sir David Maxwell Fyfe', Timothy Watson as 'Matthew Barnsbury', and Robin Whiting as 'Greg'.
The cast at the West End's Duchess Theatre featured Michael Feast as 'John Gieldgud' and Celia Imrie as 'Sybil Thorndike', with David Burt as 'Douglas Witherby'/'Brian Mandyville', Simon Dutton as 'Mr Justice Percival Lightbourne'/'Binkie Beaumont', Hugh Ross as 'Rayner Goddard'/'Dr Ambrose Quentin', John Warnaby as 'Chiltern Moncrieffe'/'David Maxwell Fyfe', along with Micheal Brown as 'Matthew Barnsbury', Steve Hansell as 'Detective Chief Inspector Stephen'/'Bellinger'/'Peter Arlington', Sam Heughan as 'Gregory', and Leon Ockenden as 'Police Constable Terry Fordham'.
Directed by Tamara Harvey, with sets by Alex Marker, costumes by Penn O'Gara (Finborough), costumes by Trish Wilkinson (Duchess), lighting by James Farncombe, music by Jonathan Yesten (Finborough), music by Alexander S Bermange (Duchess), sound by Colin Pink (Finborough), and sound by Theo Holloway (Duchess).
Nicholas de Jongh has been theatre critic of the Evening Standard since 1991. Plague Over England was originally presented as a rehearsed reading at the Royal Court Theatre before being fully staged at The Finborough Theatre in February 2008 for a sell-out four week run.
Michael Feast's London theatre credits include the roles of 'Macduff' in Rupert Goold's revival of William Shakespeare's Macbeth at the Gielgud Theatre in 2007; 'Ted' in Sean Holmes' production of Richard Bean's The Mentalists at the National Theatre's Lyttelton Loft Theatre in 2002; 'Duke Vincentio' in Steven Pimlott's revival of William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, for the Royal Shakespeare Company, at the Barbican Theatre in 1995; 'Foster' in Peter Hall's production of Harold Pinter's No Man's Land, for the National Theatre, at the Old Vic Theatre, and transfer to the Wyndham's Theatre in 1975; and 'Ariel' in Peter Hall's revival of William Shakespeare's Tempest, for the National Theatre, at the Old Vic Theatre in 1974.
Celia Imrie's West End credits include the roles of 'Mrs Babs' in Trevor Nunn's production of Victoria Wood's Acorn Antiques the Musical at the Haymarket Theatre in 2005; and 'Mrs Candour' in Declan Donnellan's revival of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The School for Scandal at the Barbican Theatre in 1998.
"Is it a good idea for theatre critics to turn playwright? On the evidence of Plague over England, it most certainly is. Nicholas de Jongh, theatre critic of the London Evening Standard since about, oh, 1947, has written his first full-length play, and it's entertainingly old-fashioned, poignant and often very funny... Michael Feast is excellent as Gielgud... Also excellent is Celia Imrie as the redoubtable Sybil Thorndike, who stands by him throughout the ordeal." The Sunday Times
"Nicholas de Jongh's play, about the arrest in 1953 of John Gielgud for soliciting in a public lavatory, has at its heart a stunningly good performance from Michael Feast as the great actor: waspish, poised and, on occasion, heart-rendingly vulnerable... Celia Imrie is also on top form as Sybil Thorndike, who gives her fellow trouper a shoulder to cry on in the traumatic aftermath of his arrest... Crammed full of facts and gossip, the play does, however, feel more like the work of a journalist than a playwright. What might seem pacy when it appears on the printed page can all too often seem frantic on a stage and, after a while, I found it all a bit exhausting." The Sunday Telegraph
"Nicholas de Jongh's fearlessness as a theatre critic has cost him a bloody nose on occasion, so it takes guts to come out as a playwright, and to reveal a personal, romantic side in his play Plague Over England. Deservedly, this funny, affecting, accomplished piece has garnered not brickbats but bouquets. De Jongh uses the humiliating episode of John Gielgud's arrest for 'importuning' in a public lavatory in Chelsea to highlight the gay witch-hunt in the Fifties and the hypocrisy rife among the politicians and policemen determined to eradicate the 'contagion of deviants'. Part fact, part fiction and part fantasy, the play is a pointed, witty portrait of a time when it was almost impossible to be glad to be gay. Doctors routinely prescribed electric-shock treatment as a cure; unhappy men took refuge in louche cocktail clubs or loitered in parks, blowing coded smoke signals... Michael Feast's excellent Gielgud perfectly captures the idiosyncratic tilt of the great actor's head, the famously mellifluous voice and his agony at his outing. In a superb scene, Gielgud borrows Richard II's self-dramatising, self-pitying speech: 'Must he lose the name of king?' Celia Imrie is a delight as Sybil Thorndike, whose sympathies are tested by Gielgud's behaviour." The Mail on Sunday
Plague Over England at the Duchess Theatre in London previewed from 11 February 2009, opened on 16 February 2009 and closed on 2 May 2009.