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'The Southbury Child' review — Alex Jennings stars in a reassuringly enjoyable drama

Sam Marlowe
Sam Marlowe

You could say this was a play about a storm in a teacup – and that would be apt, since it’s set in and around the sort of English rural vicarage where tea is reliably the lubricant of parish business. In this case, though, the vicar himself prefers his refreshments considerably stronger.

Stephen Beresford’s new drama, a co-production with Chichester Festival Theatre, is about a churchman’s crisis of conscience occasioned by the bereaved mother’s demand for balloons at her daughter’s funeral. Which is paramount – the dignity, solemnity and protocol of the church, or a small comfort for a grieving woman?

The action of Beresford’s play, which gently – very gently – interrogates notions of integrity, faith, family, and the commodification of personal experience, hinges on that question. If you think the answer’s obvious, you might find impatience creeping in as Nicholas Hytner’s production smoothly sets out the arguments. But if you like your drama mournfully amusing and devoutly old-fashioned, and your provocations mild, this is as reassuringly enjoyable as a good cuppa.

We’re in a small West Country town where the old trades of shipbuilding and fishing have given way to call centres, tourist tat and unemployment. Mark Thompson’s meticulously realistic set – the vicarage interior set against a looming trompe l’oeil church tower – highlights the way in which the house of God is both a landmark, but has also become, as the local doctor’s wife puts it, just a “backdrop” – picturesque, a nice location for a wedding or a selfie.

It’s presided over by Alex Jennings as Church of England vicar David Highland – notorious among his flock for boozing, philandering and driving under the influence. Despite his less than spotless reputation, David remains resolute about the sanctity of his church.

And when Tina Southbury (Sarah Twomey) requests Disney balloons attached to the pews and altars, to give her little girl a fairytale send-off, he obstinately draws the line. Religion – and death – are about “magic and mystery”, but not easy happy endings, he insists.

A social media-fuelled outcry ensues, encouraged by Tina’s estranged brother Lee (Josh Finan), who for his own reasons is desperate to atone for a wrong he has done his sister and to get back into her good graces. Soon the Highlands are under attack: abusive graffiti appears on their windows, dogshit arrives through the post. A young curate (Jack Greenlees) is sent to offer support until the tempest passes.

That David has chosen a molehill to die on is pointed out to him repeatedly by his family and parishioners: Beresford’s point is that it’s the small things that count, as bland, consumerist modernity numbs us to the elemental and existential, sweeping away our deeper connection with the spiritual and with our human condition.

The dialogue is sparky, but none of the characters feel fully realised. Phoebe Nicholls as David’s snarky, bitter wife Mary, and Jo Herbert as his repressed primary-teacher daughter Susannah are thinly, and too similarly, drawn; and Racheal Ofori as his Black adopted daughter Naomi, who grew up suffering racist bullying, moved away and has become a celebrated actor, seems to exist only to facilitate a couple of schematic plot points. Slinking around in a selection of micro-minis and thigh boots, dispensing sultry looks and sulky aphorisms, she feels (through no fault of the excellent Ofori’s) less like an actual person than an under-developed concept.

A flurry of melodramatic contrivances in the second act sit curiously with the overall sourly comic, social realist tone, and it’s only really in the final, wrenching scene that we’re fully emotionally engaged, the raw grief of Twomey’s Tina over her child’s coffin a devastating gut punch. That confrontation with mortality, is of course, partly what Beresford is getting at: but it’s a sip of real potency in a play that slips down a little too easily.

The Southbury Child is at the Bridge Theatre to 27 August. Book The Southbury Child tickets on London Theatre.

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