Plague Over England
Like a footballer’s wife on a shopping binge at Harrods. That’s how Felicity Kendal lashes into the fabulous role of Florence Lancaster in The Vortex. Every fold, every tassle, every rippling golden pleat of this part is sifted and ransacked for its emotional possibilities. Florence is an unstable fading beauty whose young lovers collide jealously with her adoring son, Nicky. Noël Coward’s breakthrough play evokes the ache of despair beneath the hedonist glitz of the 1920s, and this near-flawless production, directed by Peter Hall, is marred only by its rather schematic sets. Aside from Kendal — and she gives the performance of a lifetime — Phoebe Nicholls is terrific as the earthy, reserved Helen who befriends all, flatters none, and who sees the truth behind Nicky’s secret drug addiction. The compulsion Coward wasn’t free to name, even in code, was homosexuality.
This forms the subject of Nicholas de Jongh’s first play, which traces the calamity that overwhelmed John Gielgud in 1953 when he was arrested for cottaging in a Chelsea gents. Plague Over England is funny, angry, moving, refreshing and fantastically entertaining. De Jongh, a theatre critic, has an astonishing knack for comic dialogue. ‘The Swedes,’ declares some puritanical buffer, ‘have been taking their pornography lying down for too long.’ The house rocked with laughter at lines like that and one looks forward to the next work from this highly original pen. The play’s only failing (and it’s an honourable fault) is overambition. Not content with studying Gielgud’s personal ordeal, de Jongh explores other fraught gay relationships in order to evoke the atmosphere of fear, ignorance and repression.