Alex Jennings in The Southbury Child – review

Powerful play by Stephen Beresford about tradition versus populism

★★★★

Production photo from The Southbury Child by Stephen Beresford at Chichester Festival Theatre and The Bridge Theatre London showing Alex Jennings June 2022
Alex Jennings in The Southbury Child. Photo: Manuel Harlan

What timing! The Prime Minister’s ethics advisor resigns and here’s a new play about sticking to your principles. A child has died, a child with the surname Southbury. The mother wants the church to be festooned with Disney balloons; the vicar says this is inappropriate for a church service. It becomes an unlikely cause célèbre and a test of wills that involves the whole community. What follows is an interesting, funny, emotional play about a battle between tradition and modernity.

The stage is a place for conversation. Creators of TV and cinema feel the need to keep us interested by constantly adding action or changing shots or putting on loud music. In a theatre play, the main currency is talk. So Stephen Beresford‘s The Southbury Child has lots of conversation exploring conflicts within today’s society, and, of course, conflict is the basis of drama. Physical acts whether violent or loving have all the more power for being rare.

The play looks at the importance of the past versus the need for change, principles versus populism, minority religion versus a secular society, a patrician elite versus the masses. Such rich content. The obvious comparisons are with Ibsen’s Enemy of the People and Chekhov‘s.. well, anything by Chekhov. I was also reminded of those drawing room plays of the mid 20th century that explored matters of morality, like T S Eliot’s The Cocktail Party or JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls. In some ways, the dialogue could come from one of those plays. There’s an old fashioned feel to the way that the characters don’t mumble or pause or talk over one another, but it still sizzles. And there is a 21st century feel about the casual swearing and the popular references to Waitrose and Kerplunk.

The specific argument is over what a funeral is for. The vicar David Highland takes the high ground and says he won’t give the mother what she wants but what she needs. I’ve been to plenty of secular funeral services- I’m sure you have- where we’ve celebrated with lighthearted fun a life that has now ended, but, for those of faith, death is not an end but a beginning, and the funeral service offers hope of resurrection as well as a tried and tested way of dealing with grief. His decision throws up far more moral questions.

The vicar himself is far from moral. He’s had an affair, he drinks too much, he’s been in a drunken car crash. So is he a hypocrite? ‘You’re not exactly the poster boy for unshakable principles,’ says his curate. But do we expect too much of our leaders? After all, they’re only human, and isn’t it supposed to be what they represent that we respect, be it a spiritual post or a political position of power? Should we take their lead, even if we disagree with it, or should leaders follow the people?

There’s a lot of emotional conflict going on then, but the dialogue is full of humour. One character says, ‘These days you’re expected to be happy, like you’re expected to be hydrated’ or something like that. David imay be flawed but he seems kind, and well-meaning (which does make his stand against the balloon seem odd).

Alex Jennings gives a towering performance as the vicar. He employs a slightly higher voice than his usual rich voice which means he almost slips into an almost Alan Bennett impression, which is just right for some deliciously waspish sarcasm, like imagining heaven would have a branch of Waitrose. (He did play Alan Bennett in The Lady In The Van.) It’s not exaggerated so there is still warmth and authority in his impeccable middle-class speech.

Production photo from The Southbury Child y DStephen Beresford at Chichester Festival Theatre and The Bridge Theatre in London showing JackGreenlees and Jo Herbert June 2022 Greenless
Jack Greenlees and Jo Herbert in The SDouthbury child. Photo: Manuel Harlan

His is the only character given real depth. The others seem to be there to expose or test him. Nevertheless, the sketched outlines of these characters are clever enough to suggest that they have depth. His daughters are both following in his footsteps, in a way. Susannah is a teacher, and his verger, but not fitting well in the world. Her awkward but efficient character is played by Jo Herbert.

The other, Naomi, is an adopted black girl (providing an opportunity to criticise patronising white people). She’s become an actor and, by the way, much is made in the play of the way church services are like shows and priests like actors. David says that the annual blessing of the river is ‘the biggest house I play to’. Racheal Ofori gives a strong performance as the rebellious and somewhat wild young woman.

David’s wife Mary buttons up her feelings and finds it hard to cope with today’s touchy-feely world until it all comes spilling out in one tremendous moment. I did enjoy the way Phoebe Nicholls was able to hunch her body into a shy stiffness.

Craig, the new curate and the candidate for succeeding David, is played by Jack Greenlees. He may be holier than thou or indeed holier than David, but he is a gay man who is required by the church to deny his partner in order to pursue his vocation. Yet another cause and conflict thrown into the mix. As well as the interesting conversations- well, you might call them duels- with David, the other characters also have moments when they bounce off each other. There’s a lot going on.

One character David doesn’t spend much time with is the girl’s mother Tina, played by Sarah Twomey. She is the spark that started the fire but, to give more time to her grief would probably have unbalanced this largely sympathetic look at the way the vicar’s life spirals out of control.

The key opposition from the dead child’s family comes not from Tina but from the child’s young uncle Lee, played with a snarl by Josh Finan. I found myself shuddering every time he was on stage. Lee’s a nasty piece of work without any obvious redeeming feature, yet David as a Christian will not reject him. Lee returns again and again to challenge and needle the vicar.

The play takes place entirely in one room, maybe a drawing room. I don’t know much about the Church of England, however I do know that vicars are not well paid but they are often given a big house to live in. So there’s an appropriately shabby middle-class feel about Mark Thompson‘s set. There’s always a potential problem at Chichester, or any theatre using a thrust stage with an audience on three sides, iun that you can’t have much in the way of scenery. So, apart from a window and a few other pieces at the back, Mark Thompson‘s inspired main features are an image of the church at the back that towers over proceedings and a long wooden table that comes out towards the audience. Around it are 14 odd chairs, symbolic of the broad church perhaps.

Not that people sit down very often. This is a production showing the firm hand of director Nicholas Hytner in which people stand a lot, because that’s more aggressive than sitting, and stride around creating distance or nearness, as the conversation ebbs and flows.

You may find it hard to believe such a conflict could arise from something so trivial seeming, even though the play is apparently inspired by a real incident, but the beginning is nowhere near as contrived as the ending. Be that as it may, the grief at the loss of a child finally comes to the centre stage. And the final scene confirms that this is a play about loss of many kinds, both personal for many of the characters and for society, in terms of our traditions and heritage.

The Southbury Child can be seen at Chichester Festival Theatre until 25 June 2022 (tickets cft.org.uk) then at the Bridge Theatre from 1 July – 27 August London SE1 (bridgetheatre.co.uk)

Click here to watch the video review on YouTube

RSC’s Twelfth Night on Marquee TV

Adrian Edmonson’s comic turn stands out in Shakespearean farce

★★★★

Production photo of Adrian edmonson in the RSC production of Twelfth Night
Adrian Edmonson in Twelfth Night. Photo: Manuel Harlan (c) RSC

In case you get confused with Shakespeare’s comedies, Twelfth Night is the one with a woman disguised as a man and much mistaken identity. That doesn’t narrow it down that much? Okay, it’s the one with the shipwreck at the beginning. Still too many to choose from? Well, this is the one where Malvolio is tricked into wearing yellow garters. Now, you’ve got it. That’s what we all remember. Which is a shame, in a way, because the main plot concerns quite a profound comedy about the meaning of love.

In this 2017 a moviueproduction, director Christopher Luscombe has chosen to go with the crowd and ramped up the farce. Olivia’s puritanical steward is played by Adrian Edmonson, still best known for The Young Ones. He has a wonderful comic range from displeasure (liked he’s sucked a lemon) to swaggering pomposity (bouncing around the stage like a demented rabbit) to abject misery.

He is a total delight (as he was in The Boyfriend) but so are the ageing delinquents who set him up for a fall. John Hodgkinson as Sir Toby Belch is a predatory con artist with some unpleasantly sneering looks. Michael Cochrane as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, while not as thin as you might expect, delivers his lines with a bright-eyed naivety and has an impressive sprightliness. (He plays Oliver in The Archers by the way.) Vivien Parry as the scheming Maria and Sarah Twomey as Fabia, traditionally a male part, also play their roles well.

Sir Toby’s very loud and long lasting flatulence sets the tone early on. In fact, like much of the plot, there are times when the physical comedy is ludicrous. As Malvolio reads the fake letter purportedly from Olivia, the conspirators get so close to him, it’s impossible he wouldn’t see them. It is, as I say, ludicrous, but also very funny.

Running alongside the farce is a comic love story woven around a woman disguised as a young man. Count Orsino, who seems in love with the idea of being in love, is infatuated with Viola (in male guise), whilst continuing to pursue the grieving Olivia who has sworn off men. Olivia then falls in love with the apparently male Viola who in turn lost her heart to Orsino. From then on, we’re just waiting for Viola’s twin brother Sebastian to turn up for typical Shakespearean mix ups and misunderstandings.

Production photo from the RSC production of Twelfth Night at Stratford-Upon-Avon
Twelfth Night. Photo: Manuel Harlan (c) RSC

Here’s a difference between film and theatre. In a movie, we would expect Sebastian and Viola to be identical but in the theatre, we’re used to suspending disbelief. However, this filmed production with its close-ups makes the lack of similarity very obvious.

Needless to say, all’s well that ends well- oh no, that’s a different play. This production’s sing-song at the curtain call makes Shakespeare’s happy ending even happier. Possibly a little too happy, in that there’s little room for the undercurrent of pathos in Twelfth Night.

For any production to succeed, Viola must be lovable, because we must believe she can ignite feelings in both Orsino and Olivia, so crucial to the central plot. In Dinita Gohil the RSC production has such an actor. She is without question a delight to look at and listen to in her acting of this character.

I have some reservations about the people who fall in love with Viola. I’m not questioning the emphasis placed in this production on sexual ambiguity, which is there in the text. No, for me, the problem is, when Ms Gohil disguises herself as a male, she is more boy than man. This is partly a problem with the play itself:  reference is repeatedly made to the young man’s inability to grow a beard.

Nicholas Bishop as Orsino and Kara Tointon as Olivia are both, I think, in their early thirties. In any case, I found it a little discomforting to see these mature people desiring such a boyish young man. To be fair, Kara Tointon does carry it off by behaving skittishly and I did like the way she portayed Olivia’s confusion and infatuation. On the other hand, Nicholas Bishop’s Orsino – and this is not the fault of the actor- comes across as silly and a bit pervy.

Production photo of RSC company inTwelfth Night
Twelfth Night. Photo: Manuel Hanlan (c) RSC

This is a good looking production. Kara Tointon’s dresses, designed by Simon Higlett, are beautiful. As is his set. It’s hard to appreciate fully on a screen but you can see that it’s colourful and exotic and clearly shows the Victorian British fascination with India- another theme of this production.

I think the greatest tribute I can pay to this recording is that it really made me wish I had seen it live.

You can watch Twelfth Night on marquee.tv, where there are lots of other great RSC productions including Paapa Essendieu’s Hamlet, David Tennant’s Richard II and Anthony Sher’s King Lear. At the time of writing, Marquee TV are offering a 14 day free trial.

Click here to watch this review on YouTube