Audio Review: This Happy Breed
IN the wake of the First World War, the Gibbons family move into a new home in the South London suburbs which becomes the setting for a look at the social change and national upheaval that transforms Britain during the interwar years.
The unambitious patriarch Frank (John Moffatt) is committed to the values of family and home, his attitudes shaped by his experiences during the war, expecting little and steadfast about the need to maintain an inner strength as head of the household. His wife Ethel (Rosemary Leach) sees it as her duty to provide three square meals a day, keep a tidy home and raise her children correctly.
Even their youngsters - Queenie, Ivy and Reg - soon find their early rebellion quelled as they settle down to lives of quiet domesticity, with the timeless notions of home, family and children deemed necessary not only to maintain social stability, but also to ensure the nation’s long-term prosperity.
Noel Coward’s patriotic 1943 play was famously adapted as a 1944 film starring John Mills and Celia Johnson, and this 1989 revival by Glyn Dearman does little to change the messages Coward distilled in his original production, many of which come across as outdated and archaic in today’s society.
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As a social commentary it remains a fascinating look at the principles of a bygone age, as Coward seems determined to stress that the individual can only find fulfilment within the strict framework of family values, ironic considering his own personal experiences which prevented him from enjoying this way of life.
However, there is still so much of This Happy Breed which succeeds, even today, as an emotional and insightful work of drama, and allows the audience to appreciate the principles of the interwar era through the benefit of hindsight.
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Who’s to say, after all, that we shouldn’t have strived harder to maintain this sort of social structure given our experiences of the subsequent decades? What indeed would Coward have made of today’s society, with its tolerance of sexual preferences, the breakdown of the class system and disintegration of the nuclear family? Is it something he would have celebrated, or shied away from in abject horror?
A fascinating and thought-provoking production indeed, that it can stimulate such debate, and certainly worthy of further investigation.