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Review: THE SOUTHBURY CHILD, Chichester Festival Theatre

Stephen Beresford's new play takes the temperature of the nation and finds it feverish and uncomfortable

Review: THE SOUTHBURY CHILD, Chichester Festival Theatre Review: THE SOUTHBURY CHILD, Chichester Festival Theatre With Jerusalem back in the West End, Stephen Beresford's new play, The Southbury Child, can almost be considered as a companion piece, exploring some of the same themes in a similar setting, a clash of local cultures embedded within a fracturing national culture. In the ten years since Jez Butterworth found Johnny Byron, it appears that things haven't much improved.

David Highland is a vicar who has strayed, who can still hit the bottle, but retains a love both for his community, most of whom are only tangentially connected to his ancient church, and his version of Anglicanism, flexible, but grounded in certain principles. When a local child dies tragically, a row blows up since the mother, Tina, wants the church decorated in balloons, Disneyfied for her princess, an extension of the shrine that has grown up on the estate where she lives. The vicar sees such a request as an affront to the sanctity of the church, of its history, of his role as a bridge between man and God.

Heels are dug in and soon the the new evangelical church is stirring trouble as a Them and Us division, always present, but seldom acknowledged, erupts to the surface, the wealthy 'Grockles' with their Devon holiday homes and yachts and the seaside poor with their universal credit assessments and call-centre jobs. A vicar, as he must, has a foot in both camps, but for how long can he sustain that stretch?

Nicholas Hytner delivers an electrifying first half, bristling with wit and ideas, sympathies ebbing and flowing as the vicar's dilemma unfolds in its hideous detail. Alex Jennings is excellent as the flawed man at the centre of the whirlwind, finding out that decency can go only so far in a new world of comforting absolutes unfamiliar to him.

He gets strong support from Phoebe Nicholls as his long-suffering wife, a woman one feels rather better suited to the job than her husband. Amongst a support cast that might not need populating with so many characters, Josh Finan is compelling as Lee, the thuggish uncle of the dead child, Racheal Ofori very funny as the Highlands' adopted daughter and Sarah Twomey brutally damaged as the grieving Tina.

Not for the first time (even the first time this week) this is an example of a play so keen to ratchet up the issues and conflict in its first half that it fails to maintain its narrative coherence in its second. The plotting becomes a little too contrived, the character traits a little too telegraphed (does Jack Greenlees's recovering alcoholic curate really need to eye the whisky bottle so eagerly so often?) and delivers an ending that is both necessary, but also ridiculous, puncturing much of the tension.

For all the weaknesses in the production, where it hits, it hits hard, asking questions about whether traditional leaders in society should continue to act against the express wishes of their publics, essentially treating them like the children they appear to be, no matter what their birth certificates say. The old Marxists called it false consciousness, a handy label, but hardly a call to arms and easily dismissed as elitism (usually by a person sitting on top of a mountain of privilege from birth).

Lurking in the shadows is the rise in populism all over the developed world: by definition, popular; by example, dangerous. I guess most audiences' sympathies will reside with the tragic hero - but theatre audiences won't decide who makes the decisions that really matter. Just look at the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport if you want proof of that assertion.

The Southbury Child is at Chichester Festival Theatre until 25 June and at The Bridge Theatre from 1 July to 27 August

Image: Manuel Harlan

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