The Cherry Orchard was the model for Stephen Beresford’s 2012 play The Last of the Haussmans. His new comedy, The Southbury Child, directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Alex Jennings as David Highland, an affable vicar whose principles put him at odds with the world, is An Enemy of the People with hints of The Winslow Boy.
In Mark Thompson’s set, the Devon church looming over the vicarage resembles the prow of a ship on a collision course for land, striking an apt note of disaster-movie doom. David’s refusal to allow a family to bring Disney balloons to their child’s funeral becomes the catalyst for public outrage and weaponised offence. Determined that the gravity of the occasion be respected, he argues that “death is death. It isn’t balloons”.
Looking on aghast are his adult daughters (Racheal Ofori and Jo Herbert), a gay curate sent to defuse the situation (Jack Greenlees), the dead girl’s agitated uncle (Josh Finan), and David’s level-headed wife Mary (the splendid Phoebe Nicholls), who wonders why his conscience is worth starting a war over.
It’s a question that comes to undermine the play’s scattershot second act. Jennings is delightfully witty and urbane but that’s part of the problem: the way Beresford has written David, it is impossible to believe that someone so equitable would be intransigent in the face of grief. Not caving in to the mob rings true. Standing firm against a bereft mother (Sarah Twomey) beggars belief.
What a difference it would have made if David’s bloody-mindedness were informed by some yearning for redemption. Having erred in his boozing and infidelity, he might plausibly have picked the wrong hill to die on in a bid to prove himself worthy of God. Instead of conveying any inner turmoil, the play coasts by on sub-Alan Bennett humour (insulted in Londis, David hopes there’s a Waitrose in heaven) and the odd eye-roll at wokeness.
The final kicker? We are denied the visual punchline of any helium-filled Disney princesses rising over the vicarage. Nor is there much passion or provocation in this fastidiously even-handed work. David would doubtless approve.