WHEN did a big theatre last stage a play about the Church of England? Probably not since the National Theatre’s Racing Demon in 1990. And a playwright considering great themes such as grace and redemption? Probably not since T. S. Eliot, who died in 1965. This makes Stephen Beresford’s The Southbury Child all the more exciting: a new work from a gifted writer, whose setting is a vicarage kitchen in Devon, and whose choice of protagonist is a vicar in late middle age.
The opening pastoral conversation between a bereaved young uncle and the Vicar, David Highland, about a child’s funeral quickly and impressively sets out the shifting sands of parish ministry. As clergy know, funerals are always about more than the deceased and the ceremony itself. The absence of the child’s father is tellingly human and tragi-comic.
But “one other thing” is the mother’s determination to have Disney balloons in church. As any good priest would, Highland tries to tease out the why and what for, and work with that. He is against them as a distraction or gimmick. His view hardens in the face of a gathering storm in the community, which takes on hate-crime proportions.
As the intriguing Highland, the ever reliable Alex Jennings gives a flawed and yet immensely likeable vicar. Though he is a master of comedy timing, this is no comic turn, as the increasing pastoral breakdown with both his parish and household takes over. It is painful, intense, and ultimately affirming.
Phoebe Nicholls, as his wife, is all doughty duty and a recognisable figure. “No one to come back in this room without a chair,” she instructs as they prepare for a big meeting. Their two daughters — one adopted, crashed out of university, and back home; the other a local schoolteacher and the dedicated verger — add further drama, and are artfully sketched by Rachael Ofori and Jo Herbert.
Enter a new curate, played by Jack Greenlees, a teetotaller with previous parish experience and a troubled back-story. But his suit is sharper, and his management theories are fresher. He is the future, with its own attendant doubts. Hermione Gulliford’s Janet Oram, a bristling London import, wife of the local GP and all messiah-complex, and the local copper Joy Sampson, played with deadpan relish by Holly Atkins, add more pressure.
The drama is multilayered and, at times, sharply funny. Beresford has an ear for the crisp one-liner to equal Alan Bennett’s or Victoria Wood’s. The nearest speed-awareness course is “at Newton Abbot but run by a bloke who’s a Holocaust-denier”. Highland sees heaven as somewhere “with a film festival, a one-way system, and possibly even a Waitrose”.
Sarah Twomey mesmerisingly plays Tina Southbury, the final character to appear. Her simmering anger belies her confusion — with herself and a world that cannot deliver what she wants. Her itinerant brother Lee, damaged and involving in Josh Finan’s portrayal, helps point to wider, sadder family issues.
Implicit throughout is the question of personality. How much should the Vicar be a faceless cypher for the work and presence of the Church? And how much do his minor-celebrity pratfalls and worse prove tantalising — the rumours of affairs, his acknowledged drinking, the recent “tiny prang” in his car. What and for whom are funerals? He’s a loyal matins type and yet also a man of religious principle: “not giving them what they wanted but what they need, something that lasts after all this has passed”.
There are no churchwardens or PCC. Each cast member, as in Greek tragedy, stands in representation. The grasp on C of E politics is sure: diocesan double speak, the “irony” of gay clergy and marriage, cultural confusion. Everything is finely balanced: a work of pure symmetry.
Nicholas Hytner’s strong, subtle direction has pace and pathos. Mark Thompson’s set, with looming church tower, is wholly believable. Yvonne Milnes’s costumes complete the picture, with Max Nerula’s crepuscular lighting. Although this is by no means an easy play, Beresford’s natural humour and humanity lead us gently and pastorally through the big themes. We all need forgiveness and redemption.
The Southbury Child runs at the Festival Theatre, Oaklands Way, Chichester, until 25 June. Phone 01243 781312. www.cft.org.uk
It plays at the Bridge Theatre, 3 Potters Fields Park, London SE1, from 1 July until 27 August. Phone 0333 320 0051. bridgetheatre.co.uk
Read an interview with the playwright here.