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The Southbury Child starring Alex Jennings at Chichester Festival Theatre – review

The production also transfers to London's Bridge Theatre from 1 July until 27 August

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Alex Jennings in The Southbury Child
© Manuel Harlan

As the Church struggles to maintain relevance in a modern world just how far should it go to try and stay in step with the superficiality of a serially offended and opportunistically fame-grabbing and obsessed society. A society that lets opinion be formed by mob rule and for whom protest is more about the ‘likes' garnered than the societal change that may or may not justify their very cause.

As we have seen this past week or so with the Jubilee there is a groundswell of people that neither care nor understand the need for pomp or ceremony. They fail to see the solemnity of tradition and gasp at the expense above all else. There is, however, something unquantifiable about its very presence that unifies and brings together a nation regardless of age, social background or skin colour and in the nation's hours of need, it is to these same stuffy and obsolete institutions that we all turn to for guidance and comfort.

Stephen Beresford's new play explores these attitudes and grapples with the sensitivities around the Church and whether it is there to provide "what we need" rather than "what we want". Are the many holders of positions within the church the warders of what the church should assimilate to be or is it we, the people, the parishioners that should be the voice that shapes religion and its practice. More often it is down to the lowly parish vicar to navigate these choppy waters in isolation in their small community churches and sometimes narrow-minded congregations. The busy life of the clergyman appears to be a painfully lonely and thankless task if you ask me (just read the excellent programme notes if you don't believe me).

Beresford has created a West Country parish that is as class-divided as ever it has been. Well-to-do types with plenty of money and vigorous opinions – "do we really need that morbid business with the cross at Easter each year" – rail road on the one side whilst the poverty-stricken ex-fishermen and out-of-work boat builders struggle on the other. Attempting to bridge the gap and wrap his dishevelled arms around them all is Alex Jennings' weary parish priest David Highland.

The battle-scarred priest wrestles with an addiction to alcohol and is desperately clinging to a marriage that appears devoted albeit loveless following an affair that countered the second rule of the clergy – "Don't f*** the flock". He's colourfully jaded with a penchant for bad language and even worse jokes. Whilst he is "not exactly a poster boy for unshakeable principals", he is an ardent believer and has an enormous capacity for compassion. It's a beautifully crafted character of complications and contradictions that Jennings brings to life with exceptional lucidity and warmth.

Following the death of a young child in his parish, David has refused the family their wish to decorate the church with balloons. The backlash of opinion rocks his faith as well as his family. His sternly drab wife (a brilliantly severe Phoebe Nicholls) is stoical, poised and as supportive as the stonework that holds up the church. His eldest daughter, Susannah (Jo Herbert) is an all-buttoned-up school mistress whilst his adopted daughter, Naomi (Racheal Ofori) is the wayward one and a self-proclaimed ‘militant atheist'.

Beresford richly paints the community that swirls in and out of David's vicarage kitchen – the gay, leather-clad curate that comes to modernise his thinking (a less convincing Jack Greenlees) – the Brexit-voting Doctor's wife and ‘professional' campaigner (a spikey Hermione Gulliford). He laces the text with a warm comedy and a comfortable ease that sometimes leaves an unsatisfied feeling in the debate that ought to be raging – perhaps that is the point – "we are never angry in the Church of England, we are grieved" says David at one point.

Questions of the benevolence of God in a cruel world and the superficiality of our modern Instagram society swirl but never settle in Nicholas Hytner's carefully nurtured production. The poignant conclusion makes the audience collectively hold its breath and suddenly everything fades away to irrelevance – until next time of course.

Beresford has captured a moment of change in our time and Jennings has brought it to life with extraordinary candour and sensitivity. It's a cracking state of the nation piece and a beautiful personal tour de force for Jennings.