Excellent work by Alex Jennings carries Stephen Beresford’s new play The Southbury Child over the line at the Bridge Theatre
“Death is death, it isn’t balloons”
There’s no escaping the fact that The Southbury Child is an archetypal National Theatre play and fair play to Nicholas Hytner as he knows what he is doing in programming this kind of stuff. For me though, it just never quite seems to justify the addition of the Bridge Theatre to the already crowded London theatre landscape. Stephen Beresford’s last play – the excellent The Last of the Haussmans with Julie Walters, the glorious Helen McCrory and Taron Egerton in his swimming trunks – was indeed a hit in the Lyttelton but it is what it is…
Led by a barnstorming performance by Alex Jennings, The Southbury Child is a co-production with Chichester Festival Theatre and is soaked through like elderflower cordial in its Englishness. The milieu is the Church of England in Devon, the setting is the vicarage kitchen of David Highland and the flashpoint is a request from the family of a dead schoolgirl to fill the church with Disney balloons for her funeral. Highland says no and chaos ensues as the community turns viciously against him.
Thus the scene is set for an even-handed and, initially at least, enlightening debate about the role of the CoE in contemporary British society. How much does David owe to a community who only turn up for special occasions and never on Sundays? As we see members of that very community traipse in and out of this uber-middle-class kitchen, the pot is brought to the boil most effectively towards the end of the first act.
But…but…there’s a dissonance that gets harder and harder to ignore, in the sense that it never really flies that this is the sticking point for as erudite and enlightened a figure as this witty vicar. The sniffiness towards the balloons you buy (though Beresford could usefully develop his representation of the working class characters here), the reactionary determination not to cave to the mob understandable but the ultimate denial of a grieving mother’s wishes rings false.
That said, Alex Jennings does a hell of a job in selling it. A thoroughly flawed but compassionate character (though clearly, to a point), he plays up the notes of Alan Bennett-esque humour wonderfully, even if we might wish for a little more analytical depth. And around him, Phoebe Nicholls (as his wife), and Jo Herbert and Racheal Ofori (as his daughters) impress, as do Josh Finan and Sarah Twomey who elevate the material for the grieving uncle and mother.