The Southbury Child at the Bridge Theatre review: Alex Jennings is a joy to watch

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The Southbury Child at the Bridge Theatre review: Alex Jennings is a joy to watch
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The Church of England isn’t usually associated with fits of passion (even if it was invented to indulge Henry VIII’s libido). But in Stephen Beresford’s play, a quiet coastal parish is rocked by waves of fury after a vicar dares to stand up for what he believes in.

Alex Jennings delivers an eloquent performance as David Highland, a cynical reverend who sprouts a conscience overnight. Unfortunately for the plausibility of this drama, his big stand isn’t something genuinely controversial – there’s no Jesus-like welcoming of social outcasts here. Instead, he just wants to stop grieving mother Tina Southbury (Sarah Twomey) from having helium balloons at her child’s funeral.

Director Nicholas Hytner brings the play’s first act to a convincingly tense simmer, to the soundtrack of angry shouts from Tina’s supporters outside the vicarage’s walls. Still, it’s not really clear why balloons are worth all the bother: apparently, it’s to preserve the solemnity of death, but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the learned Rev Highland just thinks they’re a bit naff.

This play contains fascinating, and unresolved questions about the role of a church in a community whose inhabitants only darken its doors for christenings, weddings, and funerals. "Most people see the church as a building – a backdrop", tactless local busybody Janet (Hermione Gulliford) tells Highland.

But these questions are muddied by a needlessly big cast of characters bustling in and out of this exasperated vicar’s kitchen, each with dilemmas of their own to share. They include ambitious gay curate Craig (Jack Greenlees) and pregnant local policewoman Joy (Holly Atkins), alongside Highland’s emotionally repressed wife Mary (Phoebe Nicholls) and his virtuous but frustrated daughter Susannah (Jo Herbert). Not to mention her misbehaving sister Naomi (Racheal Ofori), an actress who unleashes stagey observations about the relationship between theatre and religion that feel like they’ve come straight from Beresford himself.

There’s also something underexplored about class in this play: Highland complains about his parishioners’ penchant for insufficiently tasteful headstones and christening names, as well as helium balloons. Beresford’s two working class characters, Tina and her estranged brother Lee Southbury (Josh Finan), feel like they’re mainly there to provoke middle-class soul-searching, and to unleash scenes of sweary mayhem into an otherwise staid play.

Jennings is a joy to watch, especially when he’s delivering wry Alan Bennett-esque observations on life and death: he fears that heaven will be all white clothes and dry ice, "like a perpetual Westlife concert". But he doesn’t contain the kind of tormented inner depths this play needs. Instead, his gradual breakdown is the muted centre of a play that feels as quaint, polite and undeniably English as tea and biscuits after a church service.

The Southbury Child runs at the Bridge Theatre until August 27; ES Tickets

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