This Happy Breed

Noël Coward
Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

This is Coward in patriotic mood, proud of his country and its people and going back to his roots as he recounts the lives of two ordinary lower middle-class families in South London during the period between the two world wars. He also takes the opportunity to reflect on political opinion and includes a bit of moralising along the way.

It is 1919 and Frank and Ethel are just moving into their new home together with Ethel’s mother Mrs Flint (good name) and Frank’s sister Sylvia. There are also three children, but not present at this point. Frank is delighted to discover Bob, a friend from his army days, living next door, and the story follows the fortunes of the two families, and some friends, over the next twenty years.

Coward’s usual style of frivolous and sophisticated wit are left behind as the realism of everyday family life takes precedence including births and deaths, marriage, celebrations, tragedy, family rows and reconciliations. but comedy and comic situations are never far away, a lot coming from the verbal battles between the cantankerous and constantly complaining Mrs Flint (Margaret Preece) and the haughty and hard-done-by hypochondriac Sylvia (Stephanie Wilson).

Relationships are explored, values questioned and it’s a very realistic slice of life beautifully and very credibly performed by this twelve-strong company headed by Mark Elstob and Helen Logan as Frank and Ethel as they and those around them gradually age with subtle changes taking place, in the house too as modernisation begins to emerge.

The three children first appear around Christmas 1925 and, as they are now fully-grown teenagers, it was not quite clear who they were, especially as they didn’t look so very different in age from their parents, but now it’s the children who are the focus with teenage rebellion and tantrums. Queenie, dissatisfied with her suburban life, wants a bit of glamour and runs off with a married man. Reg gets injured when mixed up in a political rally, and Vi—well she’s the good girl of the family, marries political firebrand Sam, tames him down a bit and it’s not long before a baby is on the way.

The whole is played out in one room, the dining room, but in this amazing skeletal set, created by Adrian Rees, we can see through to the kitchen way off in the back of the house where (usually) Ethel is busy at the sink, as well as to the entrance porch and hall where a staircase leads to an upper floor. French doors lead to a garden, and the silhouetted roofs of identical houses can be seen on the skyline.

Video footage and snatches of popular songs introduce each scene and mention is made of strikes, the abdication, the new king and, as time moves on, news of Hitler begins to cause unease.

With the Second World War fast approaching, Frank and Ethel are on the move again downsizing to a flat and now with a baby grandson in tow. What will his future be?

This is a Coward we didn’t really know, showing he had not forgotten where he came from and painting the picture so well that, with these performances, it seems we are watching real people in their everyday lives. Pity his patriotism didn’t prevent his spending twenty years as a tax exile—but we won’t go into that!

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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