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‘The Southbury Child’ review: schematic new play about thorny issues

‘The Southbury Child’ review: schematic new play about thorny issues

A place for everything and everything in its place. While the maximum of tidiness may apply to the intentions of the characters living in the English rectory in “The Southbury Child”, it is actually better as a description of the way Stephen Beresford’s overly orderly new plays (now running on the bridge) Theater in London) are written. Carefully constructed characters, including the ambitious young priest, the unmarried young woman, and the adopted black daughter are practically put together to illustrate arguments, but despite some good jokes along the way, the drama is replaced by discussed dilemmas.

Alex Jennings has not only played roles written by Alan Bennett, he has even played Bennett himself as a character, and there are nuances of the author’s dull approach in his nicely dry, deliberately unobtrusive appearance as David Highland, a longtime but flawed Church of England prest. As it becomes clear in the opening scene, he has opened the door to problems in the community because he refused to let the family of a child who has died decorate the church with Disney balloons for the funeral.

His rejection puts him on a collision course with society, which is building a growing steam against him. He believes that his position on the church and its dignity is built on deep principles. But in the minds of many, including family members, it is hypocrisy of the worst kind, given that he has had an extramarital affair and has recently foreseen his penchant for alcohol after wrapping the car around a tree while driving under the influence. .

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The church looms large on the back of Mark Thompson’s single set, but the play’s focus is less on the place of worship than the reactions of everyone around David, who all nicely offer their positions on everything.

Beresford gradually presents David’s family along with other local characters, but without the cast’s role, many appear as mouthpieces for positions rather than full-fledged characters. Holly Atkins in a minor role as a policewoman does best, not least because she is one of the very few whose position on things is unclear.

Elsewhere, the characters’ reactions are too guesswork. Few are allowed to develop from their first appearance where everything is immediately exaggerated, not least through convinced costumes. The excellent Hermione Gulliford does everything she can with the wealthy, high-handed busy Janet, but with her fur-scanned jacket, sharp hair and clich├ęd heels, she has nowhere to go.

As the mind beyond the rectory rises, the tenor in the debates over the kitchen table becomes more urgent. Everyone gets a predictably late-flowering speech in which they explain themselves – from Phoebe Nicholls tired but steely wife who wants her husband to give way, to the new parish priest who predictably reveals the reason for being teetotal and the demands of his (unseen) male partner. And since most of their attitudes are not built from actions that unfold, but from circumstances past or off stage – the adopted daughter’s encounter with her expectant mother, for example – it is difficult to engage emotionally with them. Even David’s relationship on the stage of alcohol is written about and acted in a safe way. The exception is a Martin McDonagh-like plot shift around another death, with a conclusion that evokes a gasp, but which reveals little more than its authorship.

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It makes sense to use something as old-fashioned as a play around a kitchen table to discuss ideas about what is old-fashioned and how much one should take on new ideas. Beresford is trying to put new wine in old bottles. Nicholas Hytner’s deft production respects that, but can not hide the fact that this increasingly over-plotted play is two and a half hours with barely a moment of subtitles to roll in the audience. A play about knotty decisions is a loose, too simple clock.

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