The State of the Church
Lee: “I’m just – I’m not religious”
David: “That’s perfectly okay. I am.”
Stephen Beresford’s first play The Last of the Haussmans was produced at the National Theatre in 2012 under Nicholas Hytner’s Artistic Directorship. In 2018 at the Old Vic Beresford adapted Ingmar Bergman’s film Fanny and Alexander for the stage and in 2020 there was a live stream from the Old Vic of his one-man play Three Kings starring Andrew Scott.
In a joint production between Chichester Festival Theatre and the Bridge Theatre, Beresford’s new play The Southbury Child is set in Dartmouth, Devon and is about the role of the clergy and the Church of England in the current day.
Alex Jennings features as the Reverend David Highland who faces a predicament after Taylor Southbury, a very young girl, has died of inoperable cancer. The stumbling block is that Taylor’s family want to tie helium filled Disney balloons to the pews and the altar for her funeral service and the vicar has refused permission for this.
He says that it is not on aesthetic grounds but his feeling is that when all material things are gone, what the Church offers should still be there. The vicar faces immense opposition from the community whose sympathy is with the family for the tragic loss of a child, and in a consumer type society feel the Church should comply with the family wishes.
We see that the number of people regularly in the congregation is diminishing and that the Church has become largely associated with the rituals of baptism, marriage and burial to which people flock. This play is stuffed full of comic anecdotes and witticisms but it doesn’t for me make the play a comedy, just enjoyable. The vicar recalls a baptism name he has refused. He is asked what the name was. “Pagan” is the reply.
I never felt that the vicar explains with clarity his reasons for the banning of the balloons. There are other themes in the play but explored only lightly.
The Highlands have adopted a black child Naomi who has been trying to make a career in London as an actress. Naomi is making contact with her birth mother.
Mary Highland (Phoebe Nicholls) knows that the ultimate result of her husband’s stance will be that he will lose his job and she will lose her home. David Highland has an unconventional reputation: he drinks too much, has had a car accident while drunk and extra-marital affairs, so he isn’t exactly the pillar of society and the church. On the night I saw it, David’s confession to Lee (Josh Finan) that he is a shagger was met by a loud “Oh!” exclamation from a woman in the audience.
A young canon Craig Collier (Jack Greenlees) has been sent into the parish, who is incidentally gay with a partner, and he knows the Church of England will not sanction gay marriage.
Lee tells David about the Evangelical Meetings in the village hall which David assumes is a small group until Lee says there are 200 people there. Another comment here on the waning popularity of the Church of England.
There is also the River Blessing due to take place, an annual ritual probably older than Christianity, attended by hoards of people which will stuff the narrow seaside roads with traffic. The significance of the River Blessing is that this is the leftover from a previous religion which has been discarded for centuries.
Mark Thompson’s beautiful set is the huge rectory kitchen with a three – dimensional view of the church to the rear. A table seats 14 with an assortment of Windsor and other old wooden chairs.
Completing the Highland family living at the vicarage is the unmarried daughter Susannah (Jo Herbert) the primary school teacher who aches for marriage and children of her own. She too will lose her home.
A local GP’s bossy wife Janet (Hermione Gulliford) puts her oar into the balloon debate. Her contribution is to tell the vicar that two bio-dynamic farmers got married in a corn circle; the wife writes a wine column! A shrine has grown next to the Southbury house and graffiti is sprayed on the rectory windows as protest.
Hytner’s direction is of course exemplary and the acting poised and realistic. Alex Jennings is somehow endearing as the straying vicar as we warm to him but understand his awkward wife’s reluctance to offer him support. We feel how hurt Taylor’s mother Tina (Sarah Twomey) is, shocked that the vicar who was so kind in hospital can be so “cruel” now.
It is good to see new plays with plenty to mull over.
The Southbury Child
Written by Stephen Beresford
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
A joint Chichester Festival Theatre and Bridge Theatre Production
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Set Designer: Mark Thompson
Costume Designer: Yvonne Milnes
Lighting Designer: Max Narula
Sound Designer: George Dennis
Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes with an interval
Booking to 27th August 2022
The Bridge Theatre
3 Potters Fields Park
London, SE1 2SG
Phone: 0333 320 0051
Website: The Bridge Theatre
Rail/Tube: London Bridge
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Bridge Theatre
on 6th July 2022