Here’s another of those plays that has spent a long time in coming to fruition, battling its way through the rigours of Covid and Lockdowns and all the other ghastly things that flesh is heir to over the last couple of years. But, as always, good things come to he who waits, and Stephen Beresford’s The Southbury Child is a fascinating, at times hilarious, at times tragic play, chock-full of trigger warnings and difficult subject matter.
The premise is very simple. Local vicar David Highland is to conduct the funeral of a child – young Tyler Southbury. Her mother’s simple wish to make the ceremony less funereal is to have the church full of balloons. Tyler loved balloons. She loved Disney. So Disney balloons would be best. David Highland is no high-and-mighty po-faced clergyman; he’s had his own share of escapades, including a drink problem and having an affair, so you might expect him to be more on the side of the experimental and flexible wing of the Church – if it’s going to make the family more able to face the awful process of a child’s funeral, what’s the harm in some balloons?
However, David has his principles – specifically where it comes to church traditions and practices – and balloons are a step too far for him. Cue a massive backlash against David and his family from the villagers. How could he be so heartless? The local bishop decides he needs to send in a new curate, Craig, as a kind of troubleshooter-cum-support mechanism but he can’t prevent things from getting truly out of hand. Will David suspend his principles just this once, for the sake of the village and the affected family? You’ll have to watch the play to find out.
Alcoholism, the death of a child, infidelity, car crashes, racial prejudice, revenge; Stephen Beresford pulls no punches where it comes to dealing with the trickier subjects. And he makes those subjects hit hard by employing a devilish sense of humour, which makes the two and a half hours of this play absolutely fly by. Mark Thompson’s domestic set has the presence of the local church looming threateningly over it as a backdrop; no matter where you go in this play you can’t escape the Church. And those principles… do they strengthen the Church, and the relationship between the church and the parishioners, or do they drive a wedge in between them, showing the Church to be anachronistic and out of touch? That’s a question for you to decide.
Nicholas Hytner has assembled a brilliant cast who really get to grips with their characters and give us moments of high drama as well as dishing out the comedy with enviable deftness. Alex Jennings is superb as David Highland; an amiable, good-humoured kindly man but one for whom the red mist descends when the tensions get high. Phoebe Nicholls is also excellent as his long-suffering but humourless wife Mary; together they paint a very credible picture of a couple who tolerate each other but could have wished for better. I really enjoyed the performance of Josh Finan as Tyler’s uncle Lee, negotiating the details of the funeral, getting strangely inspired by the vicar but then furious with his stance over the balloons; he too has his own deep regrets to overcome, and Mr Finan shows us expertly the anguish that a few misplaced lies and misjudgements can create.
Jack Greenlees is extremely good as the curate Craig, finding his way in a strange and strained environment, trying to balance his religious needs with his family life; Racheal Ofori sparkles (literally) as the party-girl, ex-actress daughter Naomi who gets a kick out of teasing anyone who’ll stand still, just to get a reaction; and Hermione Gulliford injects the character of the doctor’s wife Janet with just the right amount of snobbish dislikeablility. There’s also great support from Jo Herbert as the frustrated daughter Susannah, Holly Atkins as local police officer Joy and Sarah Twomey as the grieving mother Tina Southbury.
I hope I’m not giving the game away by revealing that the final scene of the play depicts the final preparations for Tyler’s funeral, tiny white coffin and all. Mrs Chrisparkle found this scene highly emotional. I must say that I didn’t. I thought it simply depicted an event that would have been best played out in our own minds; although it was delicately done I still feel that it lacked subtlety, and that as a result the play ends with a bit of a soggy bottom. Just my personal opinion – you may well not agree. This co-production with the Chichester Festival Theatre continues at the Bridge Theatre until 27th August.
Production photos by Manuel Harlan