The Southbury Child Review

It takes just a few Disney balloons to deflate the ecclesiastical career of flawed parish vicar David Highland in The Southbury Child at Chichester Festival Theatre but I can’t help thinking it was aided and abetted by some higher influence.

This should have been an engrossing, occasionally witty, story of faith, death and human frailty but instead it fails to find its way in almost every scene of Stephen Beresford’s new play.

It will take more than a prayer from Alex Jennings’s flawed cleric to redeem this disappointing and joyless production.

Jennings is Highland, an alcoholic adulterous vicar who has lost the respect of his community and his bishop. It’s only a matter of time before his past sins will bury him.

But not before he buries ‘The Southbury Child,’ a youngster called Taylor Southbury who has died.

Her grieving mother, who probably hasn’t set foot in a church since her own baptism, wants her daughter’s funeral to be a celebration of her life, complete with balloons.

But it’s a step too far for the vicar who draws the line at turning a solemn moment of mourning into a party.

Despite his own failings it seems that Highland has some principles that are worth holding onto despite it causing a rift in his community which threatens his career in the church, his marriage, and his life.

But really? With every other tenet of a clergyman’s life being so casually discarded by this disappointed, depressed priest, would he really baulk at a few balloons at a child’s departure?

This dialogue-heavy story of grief and guilt sometimes gets so dark that the humour struggles to shine through.

We have a pregnant policewoman mourning previous miscarriages, two vicar’s daughters angry and frustrated at missed opportunities, a wife furious at her husband’s waywardness, and a brother consumed with guilt. No wonder David Highland needs a stiff drink before facing up to life.

Actually he’s not that bad at his job. He spends time listening to the woes of gobby waster Lee Southbury (Josh Finan), uncle of the dead child, and he tries to comfort the grieving mother.

The child’s death proves a catalyst for change in everyone’s lives starting with the arrival of Jack Greenlees’ thrusting new gay curate who, cuckoo-like, sets about relieving the drunk Highland of his duties.

It’s not a bad drama but it’s not substantial enough to really hold our attention or interest.

Jennings is always watchable. Phoebe Nicholls turns in the most engaging performance as cuckolded vicar’s wife, Mary Highland, while Sarah Twomey excels as angry and distraught mum Tina. What a shame we don’t see more of her.

What does Beresford tell us? The clergy are only human? The church misunderstands modern life and is disconnected from the 21st century? We know. There’s nothing new here.

Lee Southbury’s crass actions during one particular moment are completely unbelievable and was it only me who found the final scene a step too far and uncomfortable to watch?

Director Nicholas Hytner, who is taking the production to his own Bridge Theatre, in London, from July 1, rarely gets it wrong but The Southbury Child is disappointing and unfulfilling.

The Southbury Child runs in the Festival theatre until June 25 before transferring to London’s Bridge Theatre, running from July 1 – August 27.

  • The Southbury Child
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Summary

It will take more than a prayer from Alex Jennings’s alcoholic & flawed cleric to redeem Stephen Beresford’s disappointing The Southbury Child at Chichester Festival Theatre.

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