“You’re not exactly the poster boy for unshakeable principles” – says one priest to another. A dry joke? No, just a line from the recent play by Stephen Beresford. It’s a show that sheds more light on a day-to-day clergy life in a small town in England, but it’s mostly just about people, their mistakes, and the many ways people use to deal with grief. All piled up in a slightly lengthy 2-hour play and generously flooded with a sauce of comedy. Ready to hear more? Let’s go.
The Southbury Child: “I’m not often alone with a priest. Sort of a weird sensation, isn’t it?”*
The premise of the play is simple. David Highland, a Dartmouth priest that has seen it all (and probably drank it all), has been asked to include Disney balloons at a parishioner’s child’s funeral. His firm stands on the balloons not matching the spirit of what a church funeral is makes him unpopular among the parishioners and causes the arrival of a new priest to Dartmouth…
The stage is set beautifully, with a dining room of the vicarage, including a huge table with mismatched chairs, a tap with running water and… a minibar (occasionally used during the play). There’s a huge church wall towering above the room, giving it that “here and now” feel.
The actors’ performances are on-point. Alex Jennings (who you might know from “The Crown” or “The Queen”) shines as the priest, with his cool-keeping manner, which unexpectedly bursts into an emotional breakdown by the end of the show. Jack Greenlees portrays an ultra-believable gay priest, who’s pushed into a new role and visibly overwhelmed.
The one character who was somehow not written realistically was Lee Southbury – a man whose grief after losing a child is supposed to be at least a little bit visible, but instead, the part is written as self-centered and silly. I was waiting for something more than a prank that would reveal his true emotions, unfortunately, I was left hanging. I’d love to find out more about this character though, I just feel like he doesn’t get enough focus.
“There’s nothing like winter in a summer town for really messing with your serotonin”*
The play sticks to the type of story that talks about a small-town community and lets you understand their lifestyle and rituals more, without throwing much action into it (it reminded me of “The Chocolate” with Juliette Binoche, in terms of concept). Time flows and all you do is spend time in the kitchen, listening to locals chat and drink.
“The Southbury Child” breaks this slow-paced story with 2 major events of the play – but besides these, it’s a sarcasm-filled set of conversations. The first part of the play tilts towards a strongly comedic side – with puns and self-deprecating humour. During the show I attended, the audience responded fantastically (and loudly) to the jokes – maybe even too well? At certain moments the audience was laughing roaringly and making it impossible to hear what the actors were saying next. Wish the director allowed for a couple of seconds before continuing the dialogues, hopefully, this could be fixed in the future.
The play takes a turn into the darker, more serious side in the second part, and that’s when you can genuinely appreciate Alex Jennings’ acting talent. I never wanted the second act to end, it’s brilliant! The ending made everyone in the audience quiet and I suppose, a little bit shook. And that’s what you want to feel when you leave the auditorium after a great play!
“You’re a bit of a lad, aren’t you, vicar?”*
“The Southbury Child” is a fabulous jump into a small-town parish reality. The play serves some of the best actings I’ve seen this month and leaves a lasting impression long after the actors are gone and the stage is dark.
PS One, very important element of the play: the programme, which includes a couple of articles shedding light on the current reality of priests in England, mixed with poems and a list of celebrities-children of the vicarage, is my example of what a great programme should be like. Visual gems like a photo of Dartmouth, are mixed with excerpts from “Book of the Common Prayer”. After browsing it, I felt like my experience at the theatre was finally complete. Huge applause for the creator of the programme, it’s a beauty!
*quotes from “The Southbury Child”
The Southbury Child
Written by: Stephen Beresford
Directed by: Nicholas Hytner
Ticket price: £15+
1 Jul – 127 Aug 2022