About twice a year there are evenings in the theatre when I am so bored that I leave at the interval; there are others, about twice in a decade, when I stay to the bitter end, rooted to my seat not by a feeling of wanting to get the full value for my ticket, but by a horrified fascination with the theatrical car-crash happening before me. That was how I felt last night watching Nicholas de Jongh's play about Sir John Gielgud, originally staged at the tiny Finborough Theatre, an over-the-pub venue near Earls Court. I missed that earlier production, which gathered a slew of four-star reviews. 'Bravo, Nick!' wrote Charles Spencer in chummy fashion in the Telegraph. Michael Billington praised the play as 'well-structured, important and sardonically funny'. Benedict Nightingale called it funny, disturbing and moving. Perhaps at this stage it might be relevant to mention that de Jongh is (yes, you've guessed it) the notoriously acerbic theatre critic of the London Evening Standard. Not surprisingly, the Standard's Paul Bailey noted the 'brilliant revue sketches...laughs galore...witty script...moving and informative play'.
Well, I have to differ. It's possible that the hothouse atmosphere of a first night at the Finborough made the play seem more amusing, and it's also possible that the loss of Jasper Britton and Nicola McAuliffe, who played Gielgud and Sybil Thorndike, has made a difference. But I don't think it's the fault of the PBA (poor bloody actors). Michael Feast is actually very convincing as Gielgud, conjuring up an uncanny vocal and visual resemblance. Celia Imrie isn't much like Sybil Thorndike, but very few people are going to care about that, and her performance was fine. The laughs at the Duchess Theatre on the second preview were few and far between, I have to report. What torpedoed the evening was the banality, mawkish sentimentality and sheer amateurishness of the writing. The play turns on what happened to the newly knighted Sir John Gielgud in 1953, when he was arrested in a public lavatory and pleaded guilty to what in those days was known as a 'vice crime'. The actual arrest takes a couple of minutes on stage and so does the appearance in front of the magistrate. The rest is mostly padding. The problem is that the brief disgrace wasn't a turning point in Gielgud's life, just a nasty blip in a career that quickly went on to new heights. And the Gielgud case wasn't the kind of cause celebre that led to a change in a repressive law, like the Lady Chatterley obscenity trial a few years later. So we get a lot of dreary foreplay (in the theatre it's called exposition) and a very detumescent second act that limps forward into the 1970s. This is a play written in didactic schoolroom style, with goodies and baddies, and no hint of ambiguity. Even that old theatrical ham George Bernard Shaw knew how to make his villains entertaining and plausible. In the hands of a real playwright (perhaps Terence Rattigan) a slight event such as this one might have been explored and turned into really good psychological drama, but de Jongh hasn't mastered the basics; he doesn't know how to start or end a scene, how to get his characters on and off stage, or how to set up a bit of mystery so that the audience can put its collective mind to work and engage with the play. Gielgud has always been one of my heroes, and I was delighted when I discovered we shared the same birthday. But this play doesn't uncover a new dimension to the man. The only moment when the cliche-ridden dialogue came alive was at the end of act one, when Gielgud quoted some lines from Shakespeare's Richard II. Perhaps this play is 'important' (Billington) or 'informative' (Bailey) but it certainly isn't good theatre. I found it as exciting as a plateful of the limp boiled cabbage that most people ate in 1953. This has to be the worst new play to turn up in the West End for years. My advice to Nicholas de Jongh would be to stick to the day job.