As a fan of Stephen Beresford’s work, when I saw that his new play The Southbury Child was finally due for its long-awaited world premiere at Chichester Festival Theatre, to say that I was keen to get my hands on some tickets would be an understatement. Having been initially set to open at London’s Bridge Theatre in 2020, before being unfortunately postponed – along with so much else – due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it was a relief to see it re-emerge as a joint production between the Chichester Festival Theatre and the Bridge, where it will close out its current run throughout July and August.

It is the second play in a proposed trilogy based in the same locale, following Beresford’s spectacularly well-received 2012 debut The Last of the Haussmans. His other work includes the screenplays for the Cannes Film Festival and BAFTA award-winning film Pride, which provided a touching and on-the-mark look at solidarity and the good sense of intersectionality so evident throughout the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners campaign during the 1984 Miner’s Strike, and the eponymous Tolkien biopic which he co-wrote with David Gleeson.

The Southbury Child is set in a small, seaside town in the West Country, much like Beresford’s own hometown of Dartmouth. The plot is centred around the tragic death of Taylor Southbury, who had suffered from leukaemia, her family’s difficulty in coming to terms with their grief, and the bereaved mother’s wish to decorate the church with balloons — not wanting it to be “too ‘Funeral’”.

This causes tension with the town’s priest, and the play’s protagonist, David Highland (masterfully portrayed by Alex Jennings) who wishes to protect the solemnity of the occasion and give the family the service they need, rather than the Disney ending they want. As Beresford revealed in an interview with the Church Times, for him this is mostly an issue of “the conflict between tradition and modernity”. In many ways this also provides an opportunity to look at class differences, with discussions of taste, which Beresford says is “another way of saying class”, often being central to debates over acceptability when the modern overturns the traditional.

More than just the superficial row over balloons tied to church pews, the play is about a church under assault on three fronts. From the upper-middle-class crowd, personified in this play by Janet (Hermione Gulliford), wife of the Last of the Haussmans doctor, eager to appear fashionably tolerant (despite clearly harbouring an inner distaste for the lesser-thans expressed only to the priest in private, almost confessional, tones); to the residents of the local housing estate, represented by the family of the titular Southbury child; and finally, to the glitzy and modern-seeming, guitar-wielding evangelicals who have based themselves in the local school sports hall and offer an alternative balm to the spiritual needs of the community. It seems there is not a single sheep amongst David’s parish flock that isn’t unwilling to be shepherded — at least by him.

Moreover, it is about the role of today’s church in the community and the humanity, and ultimately the human weaknesses and shortcomings, of its clergy. As Ysenda Maxtone Graham points out in her excellent essay on the Church of England (featured in the show’s programme), the majority, “of all beliefs and none, do like the church to be there at key moments of our and our beloved’s lives”. This is a sentiment reflected in the play when Janet points out to David that most people see the church as a building, or a backdrop, for the important events of their lives, rather than as an essential aspect of a religious experience. As she puts it “people aren’t afraid to define their landmark moments anymore”. The veracity and impact of this effective relegation of the church to a scenic barrier to the elements at a wedding are one of the key areas The Southbury Child seeks to explore, and it certainly did a good job of making me think about this.

It has been compared by many to Jez Butterworth’s modern masterpiece Jerusalem. For me, this is a somewhat lazy parallel to draw. They are both set in the West Country and, to a greater or lesser extent, are both concerned with social issues, but there is more to both of these great plays than that. Whilst Jerusalem is very much about Englishness, national identity, and those that fall through the (growing) cracks, placing it for most viewers quite firmly as a state-of-the-nation play, The Southbury Child could perhaps be better thought of as a state-of-the-church play, if it has to be a state of anything.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

That is not to say there is no broader social commentary in Beresford’s play. When the new curate Craig (Jack Greenlees) arrives, sent by the diocese to help David smooth the situation over, he is given a “Louis Theroux” style account of what David describes as “a town of two parts”, elucidating on the gentrification of West Country villages, driven by second home ownership and resulting in ceramics galleries where there used to be shipyards. As Matt Trueman cautions in his article for the Guardian on Aleks Sierz’s book Rewriting the Nation: British Theatre Today, however, we should be careful not to “refract everything through the prism of national identity” — sometimes an allegorical undercurrent to the narrative is tangential to the overarching message of the production.

The critical reception so far has been mixed. From “the play of the year so far” for the Telegraph, to a “disappointing and joyless production” for Stage Review, it has evidently fissured opinions. The divisive issue that has split reviewers into two camps — for my money, those that enjoyed the play and those that missed the point — is the plausibility of the plot’s central conflict. According to its detractors, the schism over the balloons and the priest’s decision to deny the grieving young mother her wishes seems an unlikely attitude for a man that has not upheld the integrity of the church in his personal life, an “odd hill to die on” as Ryan Gilbey put it for the Guardian. David is a self-confessed adulterer and drinker, or as one piece of hate mail directed at the vicar in the second act would have it, a “rascal” and a “drunkard”.

To my mind, though, David’s personal hypocrisies are something of which the play as a larger beast is fully aware. At one point Craig points out that David is “not exactly the poster boy for unshakeable principles”, and his wife Mary (Phoebe Nicholls) is ever-ready for an open discussion on the condition of her husband’s rectitude. David picking and choosing which aspects of the integrity of an institution he defends, that is in many ways disconnected from the 21st century and the communities it is trying to serve, could rather be seen as reinforcing the play’s mission to incite discussion concerning the church’s present fitness for duty in its current form. It is a designed flaw in the character, not an accidental one in the structure of the plot.

As far as the performances and quality of the production go, it was everything you should expect from a cast led by the multiple Olivier-winning Alex Jennings and overseen by former National Theatre Director and co-founder of the Bridge Theatre, Nicholas Hytner. It was a joy to watch throughout and a consummate display which allowed utter suspension of disbelief. The comic timing and the repartee between Jennings and his fellow Bristol Old Vic Theatre School alumnus Josh Finan, who played Taylor’s uncle Lee Southbury, were one of the highlights of the performance for me, doing a real justice to the excellent humour in Beresford’s writing which has been compared to Alan Bennett (who Alex Jennings has won previous accolades for portraying in the film adaptation of ‘The Lady in the Van’). All in all, this play would be hard not to recommend, surely a must-see in its upcoming leg at the Bridge Theatre next month.