This West End transfer of the first full-length play by Nicholas de Jongh, theater critic for London’s Evening Standard, dramatizes — sort of — a key period in the early gay rights struggle in England. Jumping-off point is the true story of actor John Gielgud’s humiliating arrest in 1953 for soliciting gay sex in a London public toilet — or in the quaint parlance of gay Brits of a certain age, “cottaging.” Event presents a challenge as a dramaturgical pivot because Gielgud’s arrest resulted in a gradual sea change rather than anything immediately conclusive; the tyro playwright attempts to compensate with historical research and two fictional romantic subplots.
The production, which preemed at West London’s tiny Finborough Theater last year, opens with a rapid series of short scenes establishing the paradoxical co-existence of public persecution of homosexuals and a thriving gay subculture in early Cold War London. The newly knighted Gielgud (Michael Feast) is presented as a somewhat reluctant doyen of the gay demimonde, trading waspish quips with theater critic sidekick Chiltern Moncrieffe (John Warnaby) at Queen Mab’s nightclub but secretly tortured by demons we never learn enough about.
At the same time, a crude sting operation sees Gielgud unwisely catch the eye of a Levi’s-clad policeman in a Chelsea lavatory and be led off in handcuffs. The arrest is observed by upper-crust pretty boy Gregory (Sam Heughan) who is then cruised on the spot by arresting policeman Terry (Leon Ockenden), resulting in a torrid but doomed across-the-class-divide love affair.
By including a gay plot twist of such jaw-dropping improbability, de Jongh inadvertently seems to endorse the very ideology the play otherwise attempts to discredit: that homosexuality is latent everywhere, the potential plague of the title imminently engulfing the upright, moral British public.
Another sketchily drawn relationship between an American serviceman (Steve Hansell) and a closety civil servant (Michael Brown) is introduced in the first act but disappears in the second.
Play is on strongest ground when focusing on Gielgud’s personal struggle. Feast, who performed with Gielgud before the latter’s death in 2000, looks uncannily like the actor and captures his peculiarly elongated diction and tendency toward a sideward pose while speaking. But he can only hint at Gielgud’s inner life because it’s not sufficiently narrated or dramatized.
Only in brief backstage scenes with co-star Dame Sybil Thorndike (Celia Imrie) does Gielgud confess his shame and uncertainty. This failure to flesh out the central character’s psychology feels particularly out of step with the current vogue for plays and films that fictionalize around the lives of real-life public figures (“The Queen,” “Frost/Nixon,” two recent U.K. TV miniseries about Margaret Thatcher).
The sense that “Plague” is circling several interesting layers of drama but never exploring them sufficiently is augmented by the fact that Gielgud’s arrest was something of a damp squib. Briefly front-page news, the story petered out because the British public admirably refused to shun Gielgud, a turn of events represented in a fleeting yet moving scene in which he receives an ovation upon his return to the stage.
To chart the gradual advent of gay rights in Britain, the second act flashes forward to the mid-1970s and then into sub-“Angels in America” fantasy territory, when Gielgud chats up drug-tripping Gregory at Queen Mab’s. They are transported via clunkily handled magic realism to the site of Gielgud’s Valhalla, the historic Chelsea toilet, which happens to be shutting down that very week. De Jongh attempts a complex compression of time, space and theme here. But the nostalgic encounter between Gielgud and campy bathroom attendant Fred (David Burt), juxtaposed with Gregory’s imagined encounter with the still-young Terry — all set against the backdrop of a gay rights march outside — comes across as overstuffed, absurd and confusing.
Tamara Harvey’s directorial approach is pared-back: The dark-paneled walls of Alex Marker’s set swivel to suggest rapid changes of location, and cast members bring a few pieces of furniture on and off an otherwise bare stage. This allows action to move swiftly, but the convention of actors doubling and trebling roles feels like a confusing economization. More than the historical setting, this makes play and production feel old-fashioned.
The play received very positive reviews from de Jongh’s critical colleagues in its first run, and early reviews of the West End transfer are equally supportive (one signs off with a jaunty “Bravo, Nick!”). But this script needed much more dramaturgical work before it could achieve the combined effect of historical account, homage and activism for which it appears to be striving.