London Critic De Jongh Turns Playwright as Plague Over England Opens

News   London Critic De Jongh Turns Playwright as Plague Over England Opens
Nicholas de Jongh, currently chief theatre critic of the Evening Standard, wears a different hat Feb. 29 when he makes his full-length playwrighting debut with Plague Over England, which premieres at the Finborough Theatre in Earl's Court.
Jasper Britton in Plague Over England.
Jasper Britton in Plague Over England. Photo by Robert Workman

Previews for the production began Feb. 27, and the limited engagement will play through March 22.

The play is based on the real-life incident in 1953 when the late John Gielgud, then at the height of his fame as an actor, was arrested in a public lavatory in Chelsea, and pleaded guilty in court for the charge of persistently importuning men for immoral purposes. His conviction caused a sensation and threatened the continuation of his career – but it also helped break the great taboo upon the general discussion in the national press of homosexuality, which was then an illegal practice in Britain.

According to press materials, the play is "more than just a dramatisation of a scandalous event in one actors' life," but also "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 play captures the spirit of Britain in the early 1950s – when judges, politicians and doctors were describing homosexuality in terms of a cancer, an epidemic and a threat to national life – and offers an extraordinary insight into the dramatic changes in social attitudes to gay life in the last fifty years."

Gielgud is played by RSC, National and West End leading actor Jasper Britton. Most recently seen onstage in Rhinoceros at the Royal Court, he has also appeared as Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew and The Tamer Tamed for the RSC, and in Summerfolk, Money, Troilus and Cressida and Honk! for the National. He has played the title role in Richard III for the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park and the title role in Macbeth for Shakespeare's Globe. In the West End, he starred as Henry II in Becket in 2004 at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket.

Also in leading roles are David Burt (Enjolras in the original London cast of Les Misérables, Olivier-nominated for Best Actor for The Beggar's Opera, Candide and Troilus and Cressida at the National), Simon Dutton (Much Ado About Nothing and The Merchant of Venice for the RSC and Not About Heroes and The Duchess of Malfi for the National) and Nicholas McAuliffe (recently in The Mikado at the Gielgud, Olivier Award winner for Kiss Me, Kate and Olivier Award nomination for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang). Also in the cast are David Barnaby, Steve Hansell, Leon Ockendon, John Warnaby, Timothy Watson and Robin Whiting. The play is directed by Tamara Harvey, who recently directed the acclaimed tHe dYsFUnCKshOnalZ! at the Bush Theatre. Her many other credits include working alongside Terry Johnson on productions of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, two West End runs and U.K. tour), Whipping It Up (Bush and West End) and The Graduate for a U.K. tour.

Nicholas de Jongh has been theatre critic of the Evening Standard since 1991, and prior to that was deputy theatre critic to Michael Billingon on The Guardian. His books include "Not in Front of the Audience," a history of homosexuality on stage; and "Politics, Pruderies and Perversions," a history of theatre censorship in the U.K., which won the Society of Theatre Research Prize in 2001, and which he dramatized for a performance at the Royal Court in 1996. He also contributed a one-act play to the Royal Court's May Days season in 1991. Prior to its current full production, Plague Over England received a rehearsed reading at the Royal Court Theatre.

The Finborough Theatre is located at 118 Finborough Road in Earl's Court, London SW10. For tickets call the box office at 0870 4000 838 or visit

<i>Plague Over England</i> stars Jasper Britton and Leon Ockenden.
Plague Over England stars Jasper Britton and Leon Ockenden. Photo by Robert Workman
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