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This Happy Breed by Noel Coward
This Happy Breed is quite different to the brittle comedies of manners most associated with Noël Coward. There is not a silk dressing gown in sight in the Gibbons Family’s semi-detached in Clapham. Coward was often irked by the suggestion that with his fame and cocktail lifestyle he couldn’t understand the lives of ‘ordinary people.’ He felt his roots – his father was a piano tuner and his mother ran a boarding house – had given him an ear for the speech of ‘ordinary’ Londoners and an insight into their hopes and fears. He certainly captures perfectly the conservatism of the lower middle classes of the period, anxious to maintain a position that might have been as unknown to their parents as an indoor bathroom, which often resulted in Conservatism with a capital ‘C’.
The Gibbons family and their friends live through the turbulent 20s and 30s until, at the end of the play, another global war is about to erupt.
If that seems a little dark as a plot, the piece is shot through with humour and genuine affection. There are marvellous set pieces such as a family celebration which turns into an almighty row. These family feuds and squabbles are underpinned with great love that is hardly ever expressed in words.
Why This Play Now?
Well, firstly the date – it opens in 1919 just after the end of WW1 – but more importantly this is a time of some monumental events such as the general strike, the abdication and Chamberlain’s Munich agreement. What resonates so strongly as I write this, is the polarising effect of these events. Family and friends disagree bitterly, over politics and attitudes to a world beyond England. Some long to maintain the status quo and a past they may have romanticised, others want to embrace change and think about a world beyond their immediate experience.
Some of the speeches which boosted morale during its original wartime run might seem a bit cringe worthy today but, to be honest, they are little different from much of the rhetoric we are being exposed to at the moment.
The first thing many actors look at is the playing age but, as the play spans twenty years there is quite a bit of leeway in that area. I will give their suggested ages when we first meet them and a chronology of the scenes for you to do the maths. Do bear in mind that to be 60, for example, in the early part of the last century is a lot different to being 60 now. The aim would not to cast actors of a particular age but to create a company where the spread of ages seems logical.
Frank Gibbons 35 (1919)
Has survived the 1st war and been able to land a job as a Travel Agent. This is the role Coward wrote for himself and so Frank peddles a lot of the Master’s favourite issues atheism, exasperation for Christian Science and contempt for Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler. Au fond he is a proud and devoted family man but, like many men of this era and class he finds it easier to talk to his friend than his wife. Coward himself said that, whilst it is certain that Frank held these beliefs his easy articulation of them is rather more theatrical than truthful.
‘I belong to a generation of men, most of which aren’t here any more, and we all did the same thing for the same reason, no matter what we thought about politics. Now it’s all over and we’re going on as best we can as though nothing had happened.’
Ethel Gibbons 34 (1919)
Frank’s wife who is trying to adjust to her husband’s return from the war, a new house and life with her immediate family (three children) plus her mother and Frank’s sister. Like Frank, she’s very much of her time. She camouflages her love of Frank with pretended indifference. Not without spark, she says, ‘there will always be wars as long as men are such fools enough as to want to go to them.’ She finds it almost impossible to adapt to newer views of morality but ultimately family love will be the decider.
‘The next time you go to a regimental dinner you can go to a hotel afterwards and sleep it off. This is my dining-room, this is, not a bar parlour.’
Sylvia Gibbons 34 (1919)
Frank’s sister and therefore Aunty Sylvia. Anyone old enough to remember Giles cartoons and the wonderful hypochondriac aunt can get a picture of Sylvia. She concentrates exclusively on what she sees as her fragile health and any new ‘cure.’ Eventually embracing Christian Science. Unconsciously she is the centre of much of the humour in the family.
‘ I thought I was going to have one of my attacks just as I turned into Abbeville Road. I ‘ad to lean against a pillar box.’
Vi Gibbons 20 (1925)
Vi is in love with Sam but can’t accept his politics. She has the practical sense of Ethel and the no nonsense insights of her father, but adjusted for a new age. She may not have Queenie’s repartee but puts Sam very firmly in his place with some pithy observations.
‘And the next time you come here on a Saturday night and start pawing me about, you’ll get such a smack in the face that you’ll wish you’d never been born.’
Queenie Gibbons 19 (1925)
Is the sparkier sister, with a good line in putdowns, she knows that a life in suburbia is not for her and, despite a deep affection for Billy can’t imagine a life with him. Her actions are to cause the most serious rift between Frank and Ethel that there has ever been. Her life takes on all the excitement she wished for but in unforeseen ways.
‘I want too much – I’m always thinking about the kind of things I want and they wouldn’t be the kind of things you’d want me to want.’
Reg Gibbons 18 (1925)
The youthful Reg is deeply influenced by Sam and takes on his political stance. He becomes more politicised by the general strike in 1926.
‘Old people always think that all the young people want is to enjoy themselves.’
Bob Mitchell 37 (1919)
The next door neighbour, Bob is married to Nora, who is never seen. He works in insurance and was in the war for the duration. He met Frank at Festubert in 1915. He is Billy’s father.
‘Nora’s a bit more cheerful, she always is when Billy’s home.’
Sam Leadbitter 19 (1925)
A Communist firebrand who sees a clear future for a reorganised society; love and maturity change all that.
‘It’s people like you, apathetic, unthinking, docile supporters of a capitalistic system who are responsible for at least three quarters of the suffering in the world.’
Phyllis Blake 18 (1925)
Lives and cares for her bedridden aunt. She marries Reg.
‘I don’t know what I’d have done all by myself in that house in Wandsworth with Auntie ill and everything.’
Billy Mitchell 21 (1925)
The boy next door, Billy joins the Navy and has his offer of marriage rejected by Queenie. He never gives up on her.
‘You can’t hold hands with someone all through Desert Love and next minute expect them to treat you like the Empress of Russia.’
Mrs Flint 60 (1919)
Ethel’s mother who moved in with her daughter – as was often the case at this time – when she was widowed. She is continually on the alert for perceived slights and likes nothing better than an argument. She thrives on these battles – especially with Sylvia – they seem to reenergise her.
‘Me complain? I like that, I must say. I’ve ‘ad a splitting ‘eadache ever since two o’clock and I haven’t so much as mentioned it.’
Is the ‘help’ she is described as, ‘a rather unkempt girl of about 25’ but she could be almost any age. In the days before domestic appliances it was quite usual for households of even quite moderate status to have what was also known as a daily. I can’t pretend that this is an enormous role but someone could have some fun with it.
‘Mother was up all night poulticing Father’s neck, but it was still paining him terrible when I left this morning.’
The action of the play passes in the dining-room of the GIBBONS’ house, Number 17 Sycamore Road, Clapham Common.
Scene 1 June 1919
Scene 2 December 1925
Scene 3 May 1926
Scene 1 October 1931
Scene 2 November 1931
Scene 3 May 1932
Scene 1 December 1936
Scene 2 September 1938
Scene 3 June 1939
If you look at newsreels or films of the period you will hear a particular accent which Coward captures in the rhythm of the text. It is more rapid and clipped than we would hear today, and actually closer to Received Pronunciation. Obviously this would be developed in rehearsal and not expected at an audition.
Michael Barry (Director)
Despite being a member of The Crescent Theatre for numerous years, many of you will not know who I am. For the last twenty years I have been director of theatre studies at Birmingham Conservatoire and combining that with a freelance career, has kept me away. I’m extremely happy to have been given the opportunity to direct here again. My directing style depends on the needs of the piece. I do like to work collaboratively and to give actors the space to develop their roles, having said that, this is a period piece and I would wish to make sure that the details of style and manners reflect the age in which it is set.
Please contact me with any questions, observations and so on: email@example.com
Tuesday April 2nd 7.30 pm
Friday April 5th 7.30 pm
Call Backs: Tuesday April 9th 7.30 pm
1st Rehearsal Sunday May 5th
Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday.
Please prepare – but don’t memorise – the below excerpts for whom you are auditioning for:
(CLICK THE NAME BELOW TO DOWNLOAD THE SECTION)