Plague Over England, Duchess Theatre, London
On the Waterfront, Theatre Royal, London

Nicholas de Jongh all but silences critics as he turns a sharp, funny, playwright's pen on bigotry

You have to admire Nicholas de Jongh, emerging from the safety of his first-night seat to take the limelight as the author of a West End play. The standard riposte to a disappointing review is, "If you know so much about it, let's see you do better". As theatre critic of the Evening Standard for 18 years, De Jongh rises to that challenge. He should, after all, know how to squeeze a tear or raise a laugh.

There are jokes aplenty in Plague Over England, for De Jongh delights in the often laughable values of politics, the theatre and newspapers, and in one-liners, original or recycled with affection. The play hinges on the conviction of the recently knighted actor John Gielgud on 21 October 1953 for importuning in a public lavatory. He has been set up by "the Pretty Police", in an England where homosexual acts will be illegal for another 12 years and in a political climate that harnesses the voter power of moral indignation.

As Gielgud, Michael Feast catches many of the man's familiar and well-loved mannerisms – the camel-haughty turn of the head, the glissando vowels (" Much the best wa-a-a-ay"). And when he is cornered by the attractive young PC, his brittle facade vanishes in an instant to reveal a cowering mouse, in one of the few moments when the pain, loneliness and injustice of his state eclipses the verbal slapstick. Around this feeble victim swirl characters real (Celia Imrie brisk and indulgent as Sybil Thorndike), invented or conflated. In the shadows, young men fall in and out of love, and will go on to march with Gay Pride as the play leaps abruptly to a more enlightened age, via a dull, wibbly-wobbly fantasy sequence. But the implication that everything is all right now is oddly parochial – homosexuality is still illegal in 80 countries, and many victims of persecution flee, scared and scarred, to Britain.

So, does De Jongh do it better? Well, Plague Over England is episodic, falls back on Tunbridge Wells for an easy laugh and is heavily weighted one way, which does not make for challenging drama. And yet, it is a pleasing evening. The acting is vigorous, and for the first time in 40 years at the theatre I didn't have to queue for the Ladies.

Steven Berkoff revisits another landmark in performance history with his production of On the Waterfront, Budd Schulberg's searing exposé of corruption in the New York docks. Anyone expecting to see a replica of the Oscar-winning film that confirmed Marlon Brando as the most exciting actor of his generation will come away with an entirely different experience. For Berkoff, with characteristic inventiveness and clarity, gives us his own vision of the menaced lives of the longshoremen who dodge for survival between the twin dangers of the work they desperately need and the murderous gangsters who dish out jobs in exchange for backhanders.

On a bare stage, darkly threatening places are created solely by Mike Robertson's remarkable lighting and the physical theatre of Berkoff's men – and Berkoff himself, as head hood Johnny Friendly, creepily avuncular with a prosperous paunch but always on the edge of violence. The play opens with the mob glad-handing in their enormous, high-end overcoats, shoulders hunched, elbows cocked, secrets masked by tilted hats, abnormally solid, like the thick-limbed figures of Fernand Léger. These massive slow-motion beasts roll to and fro, prowling and sizing up the dockers who flail against their wretched lot like injured prey.

To a soundtrack of Fifties jazz and chart hits and Mark Glentworth's thrilling live score, the longshoremen's rebellion gathers momentum, with Terry Malloy as its reluctant leader. Simon Merrells as once-promising boxer Malloy reveals painfully the thickened speech and dimmed brain of the prize fighter, whose flattened social conscience is revived by love.

There is light amid the gloom – a pigeon loft stacked with cooing, ruffling actors, docker Runty Nolan's relish at the prospect of raiding a whisky consignment: "You see the beauty of a little man in a big coat." It all adds up to a rare treat. Precious cargo indeed.



'Plague over England (020-7850 8720) to 19 Mar; 'On the Waterfront' (0845 481 1870 to 25 Apr



Kate Bassett is away

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz