If ever there was a play where the phrase Keep Calm and Carry On would make the perfect publicity tag-line, Noel Coward's between the wars soap opera is it. Just as the phrase and its assorted derivatives have tapped into a kitsch form of post-austerity nostalgia for empire, Coward's play is an equally propagandist fanfare for the common man and woman designed to rally the troops.
Set in the crucial twenty years either side of the end of World War One and the dawn of World War Two, Coward's play charts the fortunes of the Gibbons family, who breathe bustling life into Ethel and her demobbed hubby Frank's newly acquired Clapham dining room. As period newsreels soundtracked by cheap songs usher in each scene, it is here the play resolutely remains throughout its everyday tapestry of births, deaths, family schisms, tragedy and joy. As voguish whiffs of progressive thought briefly subvert old certainties if not old prejudices, such detail resembles the sort of state of the nation epics that used to bring a hallmark of quality as well as socio-political insight to prime time TV drama.
While John Durnin's production is at times a tad wobbly and overplayed, a tenderness runs throughout, with a pair of fine central performances from Helen Logan and Mark Elstob as Ethel and Frank, as well as some purposeful cameos from the show's twelve-strong ensemble. As Ethel and Frank retire to the kitchen for one final cup of tea, one wonders how things will work out for pram-bound baby Frankie and his descendants over the next three quarters of a century, and whether they too will be keeping calm and carrying on.
The Herald, September 13th 2016