“SOME people bought a jumpsuit during lockdown. I decided to get confirmed,” Stephen Beresford confesses. The playwright is on a short break during rehearsals for his new work, The Southbury Child, which opened at the Chichester Festival Theatre this month, and transfers to the Bridge Theatre, London, in July. It is the second in a planned trilogy based on his home town of Dartmouth, and follows his 2012 play, The Last of the Haussmans.
The Southbury Child deals with the consequences of a vicar’s denying a family’s request to have Disney balloons on the altar and pews for their child’s funeral, which then snowballs as the whole town gets involved.
This much is a true story — “based on an incident which actually happened, after I left home, but I knew about it” — and which he saw as “an opportunity to explore the conflict between tradition and modernity, and questions about faith, grief, and what the Church is now”. The rest is a mosaic, drawing on other real-life examples and the dramatist’s art.
In the play, the vicar, played by Alex Jennings, has several recognisable character flaws, including a tendency to drink, and questionable extra-marital relations. He’s “not a pillar of moral rectitude”, Beresford notes.
The drama is further heightened by class differences. The bereaved family is “working-class, and the vicar is middle-class — this debate over what’s seen as acceptable is often about taste, which is another way of saying class”, he explains.
BERESFORD says that he has deliberately written this to be challenging for everyone involved — the actors (especially Jennings), the audience, and himself — as to what extent the vicar can be sympathetic, or his actions agreed with. He will not be drawn concerning which side he comes down on himself.
The central dramatic construct must be compelling, Beresford explains, and not an open-and-shut case that the vicar is wrong. He has also “tried to make it entertaining, because life is funny”, and praises the actors, who, he says, are able “to spin virtuosically” from moments of great pathos and tragedy to humour.
During the writing process, Beresford consulted clergy whom he knew, including his own vicar, about the core dilemma. Many of them said that they understood, but would react in different ways, and some ducked it with the get-out that “The gravestone is the real problem.”
One of the actors said, however, that she absolutely understood the vicar’s position: “Sarah Twomey, who plays Tina Southbury, the mother who wants the balloons. She said, ‘I get it. I can see why,’ although I don’t think anyone else does.”
He has explored themes of faith and community with the company, bringing into rehearsals both the Revd Richard Coles and the Revd William Gulliford, whose sister Hermione is in the cast. They spoke openly, he notes, about doubt and the day-to-day life of parish clergy. Vocation is an essential component. “Who would be a vicar is central to this play, and, at the end, it’s very much alive. Who would do this for a living?”
THE first read-through of The Southbury Child was two years ago. Both the play and its author became victims of Covid, putting any production on hold. This gave him the time “to reattack the play and get deeper into where I wanted to go”.
The social ache for his subject matter took on greater urgency. “The question of funerals became a much more pertinent topic. People being denied the opportunity to go to them made us all think about what a funeral is, and what it’s for. We don’t throw each other in a sack at the end of our lives, but perform a ritual, and that’s important. Not being able to go made people realise how important funerals are.”
Beresford recounts having “grown up in the C of E, in a quite hands-off sort of way”, at a medieval gem, St Saviour’s, Dartmouth, and says that he was “an atheist probably from the age of ten, although I never felt any religious experience when I was a server” — except that the sense of respect for religion and the part it plays never deserted him.
He continued to appreciate the liturgy and its aesthetic appeal, especially at funerals that he attended, with “the music the centre to the story — even when a militant atheist, I was a never a fan of the humanist experience”.
He started writing the play, he says, “from the view of an atheist, and, by the end of writing the play, I’d been confirmed — it had an effect”. From beginning to end, this process took about three years.
As a child, he was clearly impressed by “redoubtable Anglican ladies” (including family members), who would “snap on the Marigolds the moment a drug addict’s charity flat needed clearing — they didn’t talk about it, they just did it; practical Christianity”.
He admits that this is “a bit Barbara Pym”, and refers to other inspirations for his work: Conor McPherson, Annie Baker, and Jez Butterworth, as well as Noël Coward and Terence Rattigan (“old-fashioned plays, but exciting”).
He sees Rattigan’s work through the lens of the C of E, in which “people find it hard to express their feelings”. In The Southbury Child, he seeks to show two worlds, “twilight and sunrise: the old order of the vicar and his wife is on the wane, and the new one with a gay vicar is coming in.”
Human sexuality is a subject that he is drawn to: his 2014 film Pride won the BAFTA for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, and the Queer Palm at the Cannes Film Festival. It starred his former partner, Andrew Scott, the “hot priest” in the BBC series Fleabag.
BERESFORD describes himself as “interested in the ends, the twilights of things”, and says that he is not sure whether what he’s writing about will be around in 100 years. “The Church is both weak and strong — bewilderingly weak on the areas where it should be strong, and vice versa. In striving to be relevant, it forgets the ways in which it is already, and often neglects them.”
Yet he feels that the Church is vital to communities. “In almost every part of England is this big building which belongs to the Church of England, and it’s where people get married, buried, christened. Even if you don’t use it, it’s still a part of your life, and I’m interested in the other people, including atheists and those who have it as a backdrop. They’re all this world which the vicar has to negotiate.”
Manuel HarlanThe company of The Southbury Child in rehearsal
And it is ritual and ceremony “imprinted in us” which brought him back to faith. “The Church of England is like an arterial system for our culture, and has fed it since the beginning. Take the King James Bible being written contemporaneously with Shakespeare and the BCP. It’s all part of who we are. I’m interested in that inheritance and re-examining what is precious about it.”
He is a strong advocate of the parish system: “I don’t see how it can be replaced.” Seeing the Church as “custodian”, he is also tackling forgiveness as “a modern heresy: so few people now want to forgive. It’s an unfashionable subject for secular spiritualities.”
He hopes that dramatising the problem enables it to be seen from a number of sides. The creative process has been rewarding for a play on such big themes. “The pain has been a shock as well as a joy. It’s been incredible to see the cast at work. Our read-through this year was incredible, almost moving,” he says. “So much happened during lockdown.”
He is both nervous and excited about the opening night — although the nerves are mostly about what clergy will think when they see it, he says, especially if the actors don’t get their prayer lines right. Considering his own experience, and the potential for its producing more confirmation candidates, he has no need to worry.
The Southbury Child opened at Chichester on 17 June, where it runs in the Festival Theatre until 25 June, after which it plays at the Bridge Theatre from 1 July to 27 August. Review here