The Southbury Child review: this play feels almost ‘heaven-sent’

The piece is deftly directed by Nicholas Hytner and stars three-time Olivier winner Alex Jennings

Still from the play
Alex Jennings excels in this play at the Bridge Theatre
(Image credit: Manuel Harlan)

“Blissfully funny and ineffably touching”, Stephen Beresford’s new play about an Anglican vicar wrangling with his “mutinous” flock would have “worked wonders” with audiences had it reached the stage when it was supposed to, in 2020. Now, after two years of “biblical upset”, it feels almost “heaven-sent”, said Dominic Cavendish in The Daily Telegraph.

Alex Jennings plays David, a vicar in Dartmouth who has dug in his heels over a request from a grieving family to decorate his church with Disney balloons for their little girl’s funeral. His apparently “snobby callousness” enrages locals, leading to a stand-off “so tightly enwoven with competing principles and conflicting emotions”, it creates “an almost Ibsenite intensity”.

Yet the play’s wry tone, and its “dexterous” mix of light and dark, “puts you more immediately in mind of Alan Bennett”. It’s beautifully acted and profound, and has a “tear-stirringly cathartic” ending: it’s “my play of the year so far”.

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The piece is deftly directed by Nicholas Hytner, and three-time Olivier winner Jennings is “majestic” as David, who turns out to be a more complex and flawed figure than he first appears, said Clive Davis in The Times. Indeed, there are first-rate performances from the entire cast, including Phoebe Nicholls as David’s disenchanted yet dogged wife, and Sarah Twomey as the bereaved mum.

At times, the writing becomes too “cluttered”, as if you are “watching a soap opera at warp speed”. But the whole adds up to a “rare and heartfelt” portrait of post-Christian Britain; it is one of those plays that “keeps you talking well into the night”.

Alas, the piece has a fatal flaw: the central dilemma just isn’t entirely credible, said Ryan Gilbey in The Guardian. Jennings is “delightfully witty and urbane” as David, and you just can’t quite believe that this equable man would be so intransigent in the face of devastating grief.

Agreed, said Patrick Marmion in the Daily Mail. This is a good play, but with “fewer gags” and tighter plotting, it could have been even better.

Bridge Theatre, London SE1. Until 27 August

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