8 July 2022
THE SOUTHBURY CHILD (Bridge Theatre) Review
For this particular production, it’s only fair to separate the play itself from the acting.
The play is preposterous. I don’t mean a clever or absurdist plot device; I mean a good old “what on earth???”. The premise (don’t worry, not giving anything away, you’re told this in the first 5 minutes of the show) goes like so: a respected priest in a small town parish is arranging a funeral for a child whose mother has requested balloons (of Disney princesses, no less) inside the church. The priest objects because the funeral itself shouldn’t be about happy ending. The mother persists, and so conflict (and, thereby, plot) is created.
Now then… The priest seems like a sensible person who is interested in the mother’s well-being. Whilst a ceremony is a ceremony (so it somewhat makes sense that he’d want to be in control of what’s happening inside the church), why wouldn’t he suggest that people come with balloons (but, say, leave them in their cars) and then release them after the church ceremony? Why not suggest that people have some kind of celebration of the child’s life and have the balloons there? The whole plot seems to hinge on either having the balloons inside the church during the ceremony or not at all. This makes absolutely no sense. In general, Stephen Beresford’s writing felt weak. Bridge’s own website says the play is a “humane exploration of family [and] faith”, but I don’t think it does any of that. It’s a bunch of basic jokes aimed at getting a cheap laugh from the audience. There are so many talented actors in this cast, and I felt their talents were wasted on this play.
At the heart of the play is Alex Jennings as David, the parish priest. Front row being a splash zone for the spittle notwithstanding, Jennings in on fire beginning to end. He is sarcastic but not smug, exhausted but not defeated, sad but not crushed. Although a priest, David is written as a fairly flawed man. And yet this somehow ends up irrelevant to the story… That’s down the writing, not Jennings. I’d seen him in Hansard at the National, so I know what he can do on stage. I doubt anyone could’ve pulled off this role any better.
Phoebe Nicholls gives a very good performance as David’s wife, but, again, the script fails her. Up until the last scene, her character is ornamental to the story. This seems to be a bit of a pattern: Jo Herbert, as the David’s eldest daughter, is wonderful at showing us how her character is trapped insider herself and her life, but this whole plotline is eventually just dropped without any resolution. Racheal Ofori, as the youngest daughter, has her own plotline that could’ve been so rich for the exploration of her character, but ends up being a simple plot device only to explain why her mum never gets one crucial text message. Jack Greenlees as the curate sent in by the church to help smooth the conflict also has nowhere to go with his character. There is a touching scene between him and Jo Herbert that could be resolved in a number of ways, but it’s just left hanging, and the text never loops back to it.
Josh Finan’s portrayal of the dead girl’s uncle was massively annoying, though I suspect this too was down to the script. There were several dramatic scenes where I just wanted to focus on the dialog and emotions flowing between characters, but Finan[‘s character] kept talking over them, taking away from the experience and making the exchanges hard to understand. Why Nicholas Hytner opted to leave this as is, I have no idea. I’ve seen a few things he had directed at the Bridge, so I expected better.
It’s hard to be balanced here. I genuinely really liked the acting, but the writing is pretty bad. Still, I’d say give your eyes a good workout by rolling them at the text and focus on the superb cast.
Cheapskate enjoyment value: £5.
Bonus: For all the dumb jokes in the script, one did make me genuinely chuckle and think, “I must remember this and bring it out should a suitable occasion arise”. The youngest daughter comes back from a party early in the morning dressed rather provocatively and responds to her sister’s comment regarding said attire with, “Some mornings call for country casual, some for Lithuanian prostitute.” 🙂