This Happy Breed
by Noel CowardPerformed in the Unicorn Theatre 11th - 14th July 2001
This Happy Breed - a play with a message but where judgement is left to the audience. Noel Coward was writing here about a level of society into which he had been born and brought up. His keen ear for dialogue shines through the whole play, seen through the eyes of a family standing by their principles during a time of great political and economic change. Under the skilful direction of Eileen Bagshaw the play flows, conveying well the passage of time and dealing sensitively with the tragedy, drama and comedy experienced by the family.
The cast kept up the pace and never lost the interest of the audience. Characterisation was well displayed - the differences between the two sisters, Vi and Queenie, the antagonism of Sylvia and Grandma and the comradeship shared by Frank and Reg. The whole was balanced and guided by a high standard of acting from Judy Gray and Patrick Bird as Ethel and Frank. Judy Gray particularly identified with her character and gave a sensitive performance. Colette Lardner-Browne, as Queenie played the rebel with considerable ability and John Hawkins made a most convincing Billy. Anne Hall developed the character of Sylvia well and Lynne Smith as the maid added a real touch of comedy.
Scene changes were carried out smoothly, but the team had to labour under the full lighting - somewhat inhibiting, but subtle rearrangement of the set helped to convey the sense of time passing.
The success of the play - and it was a great performance - owed much to the understanding and careful direction of Eileen Bagshaw, who must be commended on her skilful cutting of the play to a manageable length without in any way losing its meaning or reducing its impact. A gripping play with a seemingly happy ending? But not necessarily to an audience well aware of impending war in the Far East.
An accurate and poignant reflection of life in London between the two world wars is presented in "This Happy Breed1t. Abingdon Drama Club's production of Noel Coward's classic play was staged last week at the Unicorn Theatre, Abingdon. And director Eileen Bagshaw and her talented cast can feel proud of their first class efforts in recapturing the moods of the times.
The play centres on a lower middle class family living in Clapham. It begins in June 1919, with packing boxes being unpacked as Ethel and Frank Gibbons (Judy Gray and Patrick Bird) move into their new home with their children, his sister Sylvia (Anne Hall) and crusty mother-in-law played by Ruth Tschudin.
Frank has just returned from the horrors of the trenches of France and his family - two daughters and a son (Colette Lardner-Browne as Queenie, Ruth Lester as Vi, and Dominic Ryan as Reg) - are soon celebrating their first Christmas in their new home. Frank discovers, to his delight, that an old war comrade is living next door, and we are introduced to Bob (Malcolm Ross) and his son Billy Gohn Hawkins).
The years roll by, defined by historic moments such as the Great Strike, the Abdication and changing political moods, while the family has to come to terms with its own life-changing moments - births, bickerings, marriages and tragedy, when son Reg and wife Phyllis (Tracy Broadhurst) are killed in a car crash.
There is also the problem of rebellious daughter Queenie, who yearns to get away from her "common" roots and better herself, but brings shame to the family. Meanwhile her sister Vi falls for Sam (Lee Woodward) who as a young man is a vehement socialist caught up in the communist riots in Whitechapel. But it is the strong relationship between Frank and his wife which dominates the stage. The two principal actors shine in their roles, with their endearing love getting the family through thick and thin.
The programme asks us to decide whether Noel Cowards play is patronising and sentimental, with a false philosophy. Personally I found its honesty and nostalgia moving. Honours must also go to Mike and Kate Schomberg for the sound and costumes, and to Malcolm Ross for an excellent set which beautifully evoked the times.
Roy Cooper - Abingdon Herald - 19/7/01
Noel Coward is more commonly associated with light, witty comedies set amongst the upper middle classes - Private Lives, Blithe Spirit, etc. This Happy Breed is Coward's nod in the direction of the lower middle classes and attempts to show the lives of the Gibbons family, living in London between the two world wars. The years (1919 - 1939) roll past marked by the frequent and well-lit appearance of a team of stage hands moving flower vases, tea cups and sewing baskets around the stage to signify the passing seasons. Within all this, the Abingdon Drama Club work hard to bring life to the characters who also drift into and out of Malcolm Ross's maze-like arrangement of entrances. Patrick Bird and Judy Gray hold the whole thing together with their performances as the father and mother figures, Frank and Ethel. Patrick's is a nicely judged comic performance and Judy is quietly believable as the mum.
In a cast with no really weak links, it's always invidious to single people out but there are also good performances from Colette Lardner-Browne as the errant Queenie, Dominic Ryan as Reg and John Hawkins as Billy. John, in particular, could have stepped off the screen from any of those British war films of the 40s and 50s. I also really liked Ruth Tschudin's Mrs Flint - a cross between Lou Beale from Eastenders and Giles' cartoon Grandma. Nevertheless, the rest of the cast also deserve a mention - Lynne Smith's Edie the maid (looking not unlike Mrs Overall from Acorn Antiques), Ruth Lester as Vi, Anne Hall as the hypochondriac, born-again Christian Scientist Sylvia, Tracey Broadhurst (Phyllis), Lee Woodward (Sam) and Malcolm Ross as Bob, Frank's good-hearted neighbour.
As you might expect of a play published at the start of the Second World War the tone of This Happy Breed is slightly jingoistic (its title is taken from a well-known speech about "this sceptre'd isle" from Richard II) and its view of the ordinary people somewhat patronising. The major events that affect the family - the death of a son, a daughter's affair with a married man, the death of the grandmother figure, all happen offstage as in a Greek tragedy. What we see is the mundane but uplifting picture of the common people taking it all in their stride - the aftermath of the First W9rld War, the General Strike, the abdication of Edward VIII - reassuring us that the looming thunderclouds of Nazi Germany, too, will pass without impacting on England's indomitable spirit. Coward would probably spin in his grave at the presence of a BMW factory on the site of the Cowley car works!
Stephen Briggs - Studio Theatre Club