THIS HAPPY BREED
Theatre Royal, Bath
Opened 26 July, 2011
****

Peter Hall’s presentations each summer at Bath are often concerned with various kinds of Englishness, as befits such a terribly English town. But this is not to say that either Bath or Hall’s programming is reactionary. Rather, it presents us with the familiar in ways that make us re-examine our preconceptions.  Of course, sometimes the conclusion is that our assumptions were right after all.

Nol Coward’s This Happy Breed, which opens the Hall company’s 2011 season in a production by Stephen Unwin, may have seemed on its opening in 1942 (three years after it was written) like a propaganda piece hymning the British virtues as displayed by one ordinary family in Clapham between 1919 and 1939. But its tone is not one of ostentatious pride. These are the modest virtues: honesty and decency (not decorum, which is quite different), tolerance and reasonableness. Frank Gibbons concedes that the Communists have a point, except that they want to rush things at an un-English pace. When he and his son return home from striving on opposite sides during the 1926 General Strike, Frank does not take issue with his son’s left-wing politics, but berates him roundly for leaving for days without a word to his fretting mother. Frank does, however, draw the line at Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler; in his view you would have to be mad, in a blue funk or his Christian Scientist sister-in-law to be satisfied with that deal. Coward was a master of poised comedy, but one feels that his soul lay with those of his own far-from-grand background. This is a gloriously human extended-family portrait.

Unwin’s cast of 12 constitute a fine ensemble, but at their core are the principal couple, Frank (originally played by Coward) and Ethel. Dean Lennox Kelly and Rebecca Johnson are admirably unshowy, with Frank’s slight tendency towards optimism and wryness balancing Ethel’s solicitude. But pretty much everyone gets their turn in the spotlight, whether it is the future son-in-law’s Bolshie Christmas-dinner oration or the classically grumbling mother-in-law. The world may be radically different now (as it was even by the time of the play’s premire), but these are national characteristics to which we can always aspire with a sense of justification.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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