The Southbury Child, Chichester Festival Theatre

WE have been using the phrases” the old world” and  “the new world” since time immemorial, perhaps indicating that every generation views its successors’ ideas as a foreign country. And we all probably think that THIS time, the changes are more radical and unacceptable than ever before.

From that confirmed position, I think it is a very sad fact that urban trendy intellectuals are unlikely to appreciate the many nuances and general truths of Stephen Beresford’s brilliant new play The Southbury Child, having its Covid-delayed first run at Chichester Festival Theatre until 25th June, before moving to The Bridge in London from 1st July.

It’s firmly set in the country – Devon in this case, as was the writer’s award-winning debut, The Last of the Haussmans – and for audiences living outside the seemingly all-important urban sprawls, the characters are vividly recognisable.

Alex Jennings, who cut his teeth with Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and toured the south west, is the Rev David Highland. He is a deeply flawed, good man. He and his wife Mary have adopted a daughter (Naomi) and she has grown up an insecure actress. Her sister, their natural daughter, is the dutiful, unfulfilled and confused Susannah.

The play begins as Lee Southbury, the local ne’er-do-well whom David Highland remembers christening, arrives to talk about the plans for the funeral of his niece Taylor, who has died of an unspecified and long-lasting illness. Taylor’s mother Tina wants a very un-funerally funeral, complete with Disney balloons, beloved of the little girl. But this is the line that the alcoholic and adulterous vicar draws …  death is NOT a pretty, cinematic event, and Tina will come to know that in the fullness of time.

In the 2020s, when everyone has abandoned duties and claimed rights to whatever they want, immediately, the community is up in arms, “supporting” the previously derided Tina with oceans of filling station flowers, cuddly toys and even an expensive scooter given “to Taylor”. Tina has sensibly unhooked it from the fence and given it to one of her living children.

Complaints to the diocese have resulted in the dispatch of a curate to the parish, and he arrives to see obscene graffiti sprayed on the vicarage window. He’s also gay.

An Evangelical leader has set up in town, and his meetings are attracting unignorably larger numbers than is the vicar. The situation is irreversible.

Meanwhile, plans have been continuing for the town’s biggest and oldest ritual, the “Blessing of the River,” a ceremony probably pre-dating Christianity over which David has presided for many years, leading the procession of the god-fearing and those who only set foot in church for what are colloquially  known as hatches, matches and despatches. The vicar goes out  in a boat to bless the river, with its notoriously dangerous currents. This year, for the first time, David, cannot fulfill this much-loved duty, unable to leave the vicarage because of threats from the angry crowds.His seasick, nervous curate must take to the unfamiliar water. It is a richly symbolic moment.

Come the day of the funeral, when the vicar has both been sacked and has given in to the balloons, the traffic created by the eager viewers and television crews has blocked the access to the church, and Taylor’s tiny coffin has to make its entrance via the vicarage kitchen. It’s there, without the trappings of “The Happiest Place on Earth”, that the reality of a child’s death hits home, leaving them all bereft.

Josh Finan, a recent graduate of Alex Jennings’ old theatre school, gives a frighteningly recognisable performance as Lee, an idle, jealous and deeply unpleasant young man who tries, ever less successfully, to make himself lovable.

Phoebe Nicholls – Brideshead Revisited’s unforgettable Cordelia Flyte more than four decades ago – is Mary, another calm, worthy woman bound by religious propriety, with Jo Herbert’s Susannah following in her well-trodden footsteps. Sarah Twomey’s final farewell to her daughter brings the Rev Highland’s convictions home with a violent poignancy. Hermione Gulliford is the ghastly band-wagon jumping doctor’s wife – another all too familiar village incomer.

Alex Jennings’ embodiment of the vicar’s helplessly aware failings and his inability to ignore deeply held convictions that put him into conflict with the modern world, are the heart of this extraordinarily thought-provoking play.

You don’t need to mention our current government, the miniscule attention spans of those whose lives are ruled by influencers, or the effect of social media on community identity.



Photographs by Manuel Harlan  : the Rev Highland (Alex Jennings) with his adoptive daughter Naomi (Racheal  Ofori), and with his wife Mary (Phoebe Nicholls)

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