This Happy Breed
by Noel Coward
Bath Theatre Royal
4th August 2011 Matinee
Directed by Stephen Unwin
Three acts, but around ten scenes with time shifts that have to be marked by titles projected on the curtain between each one. These sometimes add information, such as “July 1939. The war was only three months away.” A lot of people wouldn’t know that.
The action of the play runs from the beginning of 1919 through to July 1939. It’s a family saga, not Coward’s normal area. It was written in 1939, with its dress rehearsal on August 31st 1939, but abandoned when Germany invaded Poland the next day. It was first performed in 1942, and certainly the last speech is plucky British bravado that had us thinking plucky Kenneth More could have delivered that plucky speech quite pluckily. It’s a monologue directly to front, excused by the idea that the character is addressing the baby grandson in the pram rather than the entire British Empire. It was a major wartime success, playing in repertory with Present Laughter. In 1944, David Lean’s film version was the most successful British production at the box office.
Left: Frank Gibbons (DeanLennox Kelly): the plucky closing monologue Bath, 2011
Right: Noel Coward as Frank Gibbons doing the same speech in 1943
The Bath production is a slightly dull way to spend an afternoon. The play has little to commend it to the 21st century, its family saga role long ago usurped by long-running TV soaps, nearly all of which are better-written, more dramatic and more entertaining. It’s hard to see what possessed anyone to revive it, except the name Coward currently sells seats, and Bath has produced several fine Coward plays in recent years, and done them well. Coward does style. Coward does witty repartee. Coward does gorgeous sets and costumes. Here, Coward is slumming it. He does none of those things. He can’t write cheerful loveable chirpy plucky London suburbs (if Clapham Common was still “a suburb” in 1919). His idea of lower middle class conversation is laden with cliches which lurch from one to another. You mark my words. I’ll lather the living daylights out of you. It’ll all come out in the wash.
References say he was writing about “working class people”. Working class? With a maid? And morning dress for weddings? Coward played Frank Gibbons, the father, in the original production, and his own beginnings were similar. By the time he wrote this they were encapsulated in cliché.
The play is didactic, presenting a “typical family” from the end of one war to the start of the next. This is what we’re fighting for. You mark my words. In the General Strike scene we see the young socialists, son Reg and his pal Sam ranting away. Then Reg gets hurt in the strike and dad rants away at him. Well, it’ll all come out in the wash. In 1938 and 1939, Auntie Sylv, Ethel’s sister, is the Christian Scientist voice of appeasement and pacifism, the words put in the mouth of a comically silly character.
There are some resonant touches, such as the errant daughter Queenie going off to stay with her sailor husband in Singapore. This is 1939. By the time the play was performed, the wives of military personnel in Singapore were enduring horrific camp conditions as POWs. I’d guess that Coward added this as a revision, together with disparaging remarks about the Japanese navy earlier. if not he was prescient.
Unusually for Coward it lacks many exciting flashes of theatre and activity. The production doesn’t help, being wooden and static. To my mind, that’s set by Coward’s writing. If nothing exciting happens, you can’t add an extraneous cartwheel or bit of fire eating. If it’s about people sitting around drinking tea, standing around drinking tea, shouting at each other and drinking tea but loving each other really and drinking tea, that’s what you have to do. One of the few set pieces that look as if they’ve been thoroughly worked out is the two drunken middle-aged males returning from their armistice reunion. There’s lots of well-executed business with biscuits, fishpaste, whisky and brown sauce.
After the regimental reunion, 11th November
The characters I remember most are the daughter Queenie, who runs off with a married man, and Aunt Sylvie who we meet in 1919 as the whingeing invalid and war window. Sylvie has a tempestous relationship with her sister and mother before meeting a lady Christian Scientist and becoming a very funny Christian Scientist whose clothes get stylishly pretty then severely trouser-suited as her friendship with the woman, er, develops. The raging row as they wait for the wedding car to take them all to Reg’s wedding is the other memorable piece of staging and acting. Queenie and Sylvie get many of the funny lines. Miserable old granny’s lines sound as if they came out of the Grumpy Old Git’s Joke Book (1939 edition).
Ethel Gibbons, Aunt Sylvie, Frank and Grandma on Reg’s wedding day.
The characters have the problem of ageing twenty years, and you can make someone older far more readily than you can make someone younger. This produces disconcerting effects, so that the parents and kids in the 1925 scene look much the same age, as they are in reality. Having aged about six months in the 15 years covered by acts one and two, mum and dad age 20 years or more between act two and act three. But in the story this is merely the period 1935 to 1936. They’ve endured a tragic loss, but even so, ageing that much and both developing severe limps as well, is more than sudden. You mark my words.
And so this is Christmas …
At the beginning of scene two, Christmas 1925, we don’t know know the seated people are the grown-up kids, and it’s hard to work out who’s who. The maid came on (yes, these cheerful loveable salt-of-the-earth Londoners have a maid), and I assumed she was either the mother or aunt in a different dress. The brown set marked Christmas by a single paper chain and paper hats on the cast members. Much more could have been done with the set to reflect the passing of time. We get a radio added in 1932, and a bit of carpet, but that’s about it indoors. The garden outside the French windows has a leafless tree in winter, and a tree covered with blossom in late Spring, and cabbages get added because Frank has to garden in the story. This (pre-) Godot-esque touch with the tree is demanded by the plot. Just before they hear the tragic news, Frank realizes someone (Sylvie) has brought May blossom into the house, which always brings bad luck. And guess what? It does within minutes. We see the blossom on the tree outside. White would have been more likely than bright pink, but less visible. In contrast to the set, the costumes seem accurate reflections of the eras. The lack of a lavish set is excused by the fact that it was playing in rotation with Henry IV Pts 1 and 2.
Overall, it’s the weakest Coward play I’ve seen in terms of both drama and writing, and the production fails to lift it. It was massively popular during the 1940s, but that was a production designed to lift the spirits of a nation in dire straits (a cliché Coward missed unaccountably). That final monologue reminds you that Coward spent 1940 and 1941 working on propaganda, before being persuaded that his ability to entertain and lighten the spirits was more useful to the war effort. The monologue rings hollow today. The nation might be in a gloomy spell now, but it’s not in the same league. It hasn’t been revived for years. The main question at the end was, why did they bother now?
“Bath matinee interjections”
With such a percentage of elderly people, the audience interjections (always in piercingly loud RP voices) are one of the treats of visiting the Theatre Royal. In Act 2. Queenie creeps out of the family home, leaving a note. As Snoopy said so often, it was a dark and stormy night. The projected time pointer proclaimed “November 1931.” We could hear the wind noise outside. Queenie silently closed the door. More wind noise. An imperious female voice rang out, ‘Is this the Second World War now?’
At the end of the act, Ethel and Frank receive the news that their only son, Reg, and his wife have been killed. We see the conversation through the French windows in the garden. They’re talking, and it’s the only moment of true poignancy in the play. But we can’t hear them which is excellent given Coward’s inability to write lower middle class dialogue. Some poor old chap must have woken up to see mouths moving but no sound emerging. His voice echoed round the theatre as the curtain descended, “I’ve lorst the plot. What’s happening?”