A True Londoner

By Morley, Sheridan | The Spectator, June 24, 2000 | Go to article overview

A True Londoner


Morley, Sheridan, The Spectator


The post-centennial fascination with Noel Coward (and I have to declare the usual interest as a trustee of his Estate) is surely that, just when you think you have him cornered, he comes at you from some altogether different part of the stage. When his This Happy Breed, now in an admirable small-scale revival at the Man in the Moon in Chelsea (its first in London for more than 20 years), originally opened back in 1943, Coward was widely attacked for apparently patronising the lower-middle-class citizens of Clapham Common. For once, he was then engaged in a press battle where all the cards were stacked in his favour.

Having typecast him as the playboy of the West End world, on the evidence of Private Lives and much else in that sophisticated genre of prewar cocktails and laughter and what came after, his many critics had unwisely forgotten about the `wrong' side of the South London tracks from which he came. Noel was born in Teddington, brought up in Clapham and Battersea, and, until he was 25, lived on the top floor of his mother's Pimlico boarding-house.

In those years, the first third of his life, Coward came to know and love South Londoners as no other playwright of his time; and when just after the war he wrote the long-lost Peace In Our Time, about how London would have behaved under Nazi occupation, he reached a conclusion which enraged Graham Greene and Cyril Connolly, among others, that the aristocracy and the left-wing intellectuals would have been the first to collaborate, leaving the more traditionally conservative and middle-class pub regulars to see off the invading Germans.

This Happy Breed starts at the Armistice of 1918 and ends just before the second world war, but it too is a powerful defence of the `ordinary' Londoner responding to national and international events not of his making; in the final speech of Fred Gibbons (Charles Neville in a touching performance) to his unseen baby grandson, there lies an extraordinary and long-lost Coward credo about valour and patriotism and honour, and how there are worse things to be than ordinary and respectable. True, earlier scenes in this domestic Cavalcade now seem a little soap-operatic, but the director Helen Alexander has, as so often at this address, worked wonders with a cast of 11 on a budget of less than nothing; my only complaint is that her scene-change music is maddeningly of just the wrong dates.

Something else long lost from the London theatre these last two decades is a really good new thriller, but you will find one at the Mill at Sonning, where the actor Simon Williams writes and directs Kiss Of Death. …

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