How acting legend survived the sign of the times...

PUBLISHED: 15:53 12 March 2008 | UPDATED: 17:23 16 August 2010

SURVIVING THE BIGOTS: Sir John Gielgud in the 1950s.

SURVIVING THE BIGOTS: Sir John Gielgud in the 1950s.

ACTOR Sir John Gielgud excelled as Hamlet, so it was ironic that the line: The time is out of joint applied perfectly to his own life.

ACTOR Sir John Gielgud excelled as Hamlet, so it was ironic that the line: "The time is out of joint" applied perfectly to his own life.

His arrest in 1953 for the harmless pleasure of 'cottaging' - where gay men met for casual sex at public conveniences - was illegal and caused outrage among middle England and the tabloids. 'A Wicked Mischief' trumpeted the Daily Express. The police were detailed to conduct a 'war on queers'. Tunbridge Wells seems to have been identified as a hotspot of deviant conduct, but in fact homosexuality was present countrywide and in all walks of life.

Evening Standard theatre critic Nicholas De Jongh has put tremendous life into this play which he penned, and director Tamara Harvey has brilliantly re-created the claustrophobic and moral atmosphere of the 1950s. A wonderful set of folding panels can be seen at the play's venue - The Finborough Theatre. The set by Alex Marker introduces us to the 'cottage' in question, a spode and mahogany urinal in Chelsea presided over by David Burt as the attendant who demands good conduct and cleanliness.

Gielgud wanders in after the theatre, hazy with alchohol, and finds himself in the middle of an undercover police 'sting' where his genial smile and wandering eye lands him in handcuffs. Fined £10 for 'soliciting' he faces professional ruin and personal rejection by his confused peers. He is rescued by the necessity of appearing onstage and facing his public with the support of his co-star Sybil Thorndike (who craftily steals all his 'hate mail')

I will not spoil the serpentine journey that ensues at all levels of society in dealing with this so called plague, but suffice to say that Jasper Britton triumphs in his interpretation of the anguished but witty Gielgud, and Nichola McAuliffe is unforgettable as Sybil and also Vera Dromgoole, the fading, self-appointed star of the gay night club 'Queen Mabs'.

The rest of the cast are uniformly excellent, creating brilliant cameos that may seem overblown in today's world but were only too real fifty years ago.

This two and a half hour piece is hugely enjoyable, not only as a documentary on the machinations of the ruling class, but also a poignant reminder of how witty and vulnerable theatre people were, and how deep the kindness and caring they displayed for each other.

Neil McPherson must be congratulated for putting on this controversial play in his tiny theatre, but I will be surprised if he is not rewarded by a transfer to a grander venue, where the humanity and humour of Mr De Jongh's debut offering will continue to shine.

If you want the total experience of seeing this charming show up close and intimate, get down to the Finborough, and exclaim as I did: "A hit - A very palpable hit".

* Plague over England is at The Finborough Theatre from now until March 22. Box office: 0870 400 838

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