The Southbury Child, Chichester, review: hugely cathartic, this is the play of the year so far

Alex Jennings in The Southbury Child - Manuel Harlan
Alex Jennings in The Southbury Child - Manuel Harlan

There was just one day of rehearsal for The Southbury Child before the pandemic hit and best-laid plans went south. Watching Stephen Beresford’s blissfully funny and ineffably touching new play finally reach the stage, it strikes me as such a dexterous mixture of light and shade in its portrait of a troubled Anglican vicar, his resentful close family and mutinous local flock, that it would have worked wonders with audiences had 2020 proceeded as expected. But after two years of biblical upset, it almost feels heaven-sent.

At its heart is a stand-off between an individual and his community so tightly enwoven with competing principles and conflicting emotions it has an almost Ibsenite intensity. Yet its subtle, wry tonal quality puts you more immediately in mind of Alan Bennett, a prompting assisted by the fact that Alex Jennings, who has played Bennett on stage and screen, takes the lead as David Highland, blending beatific reticence with charismatic fallibility.

Highland is the model of softly spoken understanding. His parish is in Dartmouth – a conscious but discreet return to the Devon locale of Beresford’s playwriting debut a decade ago at the National, The Last of the Haussmans. This is no teddy bear of a spiritual father figure, though; he has dug his heels in over a request by a grieving family to adorn his church with Disney balloons to pay tribute to their little princess, Taylor, at her funeral.

That seemingly snobby callousness has turned the locals viciously against him. Allies are there few. 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 suck up the humiliation, and relent. Given his trouser-dropping past, she hardly thinks that he has a leg to stand on when it comes to godliness.

His flaws and failings only make him a martyr to the cause, though. To him, everything is at stake if he relents: religion can’t be sugar-coated if it’s to guide mortal sinners to salvation. Falling to his knees before the doctor’s wife (Hermione Gulliford), the emissary of meddling middle-class concern, he urges, with rising fervour: “Elitist though it may be, arrogant though it doubtless appears, I’m pleading for nothing less than an experience which is worthy of God. And if that doesn’t matter... then nothing matters.”

It’s an unforgettable dramatic moment, not just because Jennings slips off his buttoned-up, dog-collared restraint but because it has a persuasive force of conviction. The evening transcends its confines, petty or parochial as they might seem. In that cry is heard an ageless need for succour from above at a time of grief, but also a modern lament, a sadness at the loss of tradition, and hard-won individualism, to the swirl of faddish group-think.

Jennings is as immaculately understated as the script, lunging in a telling bout of desperation for a glass of whisky. Trying to prop everyone up, he’s crumbling inside, and finds a soul-mate of sorts in the new curate, a handsome Scot (Jack Greenlees) whose homosexuality is tolerated but not institutionally supported.

No one here is getting what they want and the cast minutely convey that unfulfillment, tucked within rather British bustle and brittleness. Everyone’s on song in Nick Hytner's production: Phoebe Nicholls as Highland’s clipped, careworn spouse, Jo Herbert as the teacher daughter out of self-denying patience, Racheal Ofori as the other, adopted child who became an actress but has a forlorn air beneath her devil-may-care flamboyance.

Each has their cross to bear; Holly Atkins is sympathetic, too, as a resolutely upbeat, emotionally astute copper who is expecting a child herself. But the final scene is dominated by Sarah Twomey’s grieving mother and a pitiful tiny coffin, emotions swelling with the sound of organ music. Coming after Covid, it’s hugely, tear-stirringly cathartic. Beresford won a Bafta for the screenplay of Pride. He can pride himself on this. My play of the year so far.

Until June 25. Tickets: 01243 781312; www.cft.org.uk; then at the Bridge, London SE1 (bridgetheatre.co.uk), July 1-Aug 2