Tuesday, 5 May 2009


30/4/09, Duchess

A feelgood recreation written by Nick de Jongh, who has just stepped down as the decidedly waspish theatre critic of the Evening Standard, of the 1950s when a Conservative Home Secretary, David Maxwell-Fyffe, vowed to stamp out the plague of homosexualuity, with the aid of aversion therapy and agents provocateurs, the "pretty police" who frequented gents' lavs to catch cottagers in the act. You wonder now what madness possessed them to attempt something so harebrained. But there's nothing so baffling as an earlier generation's obsessions.

There are some good jokes at the expense of the stupidities of the age, greeted on the night we saw it by appreciative laughter from an audience half of whom seemed to be elderly gay couples, no doubt remembering (fondly?) the years when their proclivities were a crime. There were some good jokes too at the expense if theatre critics and the Evening Standard.

Several stories interwoven, on a set with numerous doors and a revolving back wall which cleverly managed to suggest the bar of a louche gay club, the set of a country house melodrama, a gents' urinal and so on. There was lots of doubling, lots of quick changes: an excellent piece of stage management.

There was the young civil servant who jeopardises his career by having an affair with an ex-GI. There's the judge's son who falls for one the pretty police. And there's John Gielgud, arrested and fined for cottaging while rehearsing for the provincial opening of some dreadful drawing room drama co-starring Sybil Thorndike and produced by Binkie Beaumont (resplendent in a cream suit). How will Gielgud's audience react to his conviction? Will the tour have to be cancelled? Beaumont is cagey, hypocritical; Gielgud hopelessly naive.

Most of the cast I recognised, few I could properly place. Celia Imrie the only woman, playing Thorndike and the madame of a gay club, sometimes barely audible. Michael Feast doing a passable imitation of Gielgud, including the waspish humour. David Burt as a succession of manservants, waiters, lavatory attendants, all more or less camp. John Warnaby as Gielgud's friend, a portly theatre critic.

It was an old-fashioned play, a series of linked sketches, which reminded me of Alan Bennett. Funny, touching, soft-centred, engineering a happy ending by virtue of flashes forward to the 1970s and the decriminalisation of homosexuality and underlined by the judge's son and the pretty policeman stripping off an rolling around passionately.

Stephen Poliakoff was in the audience. So was Nick de Jongh, who sat right behind us. That might have been unnerving. Happily there was no need to pretend: we enjoyed it greatly.

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