There was only one day of rehearsal for The Southbury Child before the pandemic hit and the best-laid plans went south. Watching Stephen Beresford’s delightfully funny and ineffably touching new play finally hit the stage, it strikes me as such a deft blend of light and shadow in its portrayal of a troubled Anglican vicar, his resentful close family and the flock mutinous local, that it would have worked wonders with the public if 2020 had gone as planned. But after two years of biblical upheaval, one almost feels heaven-sent.
At its heart is a confrontation between an individual and their community so intertwined with competing principles and conflicting emotions that it has an almost ibsenite intensity. Yet its subtle, tongue-in-cheek tonal quality more immediately reminds you of Alan Bennett, an incitement aided by the fact that Alex Jennings, who has played Bennett on stage and screen, takes the lead as David Highland, blending beatific reluctance and charismatic fallibility.
Highland is the model for whispered comprehension. His parish is in Dartmouth – a conscious but understated throwback to the Devon region of Beresford’s playwriting debut a decade ago at The National, The Last of the Haussmans. He’s no teddy bear of a spiritual father figure, though; he dug in the heels at the request of a grieving family to decorate their church with Disney balloons to honor their little princess, Taylor, at her funeral.
This seemingly snobby insensitivity turned the locals against him. There are few allies there. The deceased’s young uncle, Lee (Josh Finan), the black sheep of his family, appeals for kindness to prevail. Mary, the vicar’s wife, believes he can absorb the humiliation and give in. Given his pants past, she hardly thinks he has a leg to stand on when it comes to godliness.
His shortcomings and failures, however, only make him a martyr to the cause. For him, everything is at stake if he yields: religion cannot be watered down if it is to guide mortal sinners to salvation. Falling to his knees before the doctor’s wife (Hermione Gulliford), an emissary of bourgeois interference, he exhorts, with growing fervor: an experience worthy of God. And if it doesn’t matter… then nothing matters.