FringeReview UK 2022
Directed by Nicholas Hytner, Set Designer Mark Thompson, Costume Designer Yvonne Milnes, Lighting Designer Max Narula, Sound Designer George Dennis, Casting Director Robert Sterne CDG, Assistant Director Isabel Marr, Production Manager Chris Hay , Costume Supervisor Rosemary Elliott-Dancs, Props Supervisor Lily Mollgaard, CSM Kate McDowell, DSM Rebecca Maltby, ASM Olivia Page
Till June 25th then transferring to Bridge Theatre from July 1st to August 18th .
It seems about one man’s conscience: Alex Jennings’ straying, heavy-drinking liberal but patrician vicar David Highland. But in many ways it’s two. We think we know who The Southbury Child refers to: Taylor Southbury, the girl who’s died of a rare kidney disease when no match could be found. And in that lies two key clues in Stephen Beresford’s finest stage-play so far.
Taylor’s uncle – Josh Finan’s superb Lee – claimed the hospital’s found he’s a donor match. He wasn’t; the hospital never finds one. Lee’s stricken need for redemption spirals further when his family disown him. Yet he’s here at Highland’s vicarage to plea for their desire for Taylor’s burial to be filled with balloons inside a church.
And Highland won’t budge. A man whose urbanity might chime with the second-home ‘Grockles’ who never visit anyway, but Highland-mighty doesn’t go down so well with a laid-off zero-hour flock he’s fornicated with and crashed a car round. Like the more seriously disturbed Lee – a man abandoned and prone to behavioural extremes – he’s drastically out of step; the community and diocese turn against him.
Highland’s refusal to grant the Disneyfied balloons Taylor’s grieving mother Tina wants burns the very bridge he says he spans between them and his God. Highland’s very fallibility, suggested in a haver of charm and witty pounce by Jennings, impels him to the one thing he feels immoveable on, to make up for it one feels.
In theory, yes funerals are a release of grieving, not balloons. And the great thing in Beresford’s tragedy is everyone’s right, including Highland by the end. Though there’s a lot of bridges to be burned first, including with his own family. Fitting as this parish is a remote coastal one torn apart by a trashed class with stunted aspiration, which filters up to Highland’s own family.
And there’s the third conscience, Phoebe Nicholls’ Mary Highland: a privileged woman (her surname chimes with a housing association and board she’s sat on) who married a man who’s disappointed her. Faintly redolent of vicar’s daughter Theresa May, she’s a supreme coper, able to supply words if Highland falters. In another age she’d have been the vicar. But she’s transmitted repeat damage to one daughter.
Her wry one liners – ‘you’re expected to be happy like being hydrated’ – stud her unhappiness. It’s a wincingly hilarious play.
Jo Herbert’s under-loved teacher Susannah Highland eyes spinsterhood as if from another age, however supremely she dispatches church business.
The scene with new, gay curate Jack Greenlees Craig Collier is a small cup of poisoned intensity as Herbert offers him herself as a friend to run the vicarage with, but tempts him in a very different way to fall off the wagon. Beresford doesn’t allow easy solutions: the church doesn’t allow marriage between a male vicar and a man. Collier has to choose too. It’s a painfully marvellous scene from both actors.
By contrast adopted daughter Racheal Ofori’s Naomi Highland is inoculated against a community she’s always felt on the outside of. A faltering West End actress it doesn’t affect her the same way. Again Beresford weaves not only her backstory but her childhood encounters with Lee, always twitching us back to Finan’s spring-coil of disorder: trying ever more desperate japes to gain agency, a voice, recalling how extraordinary was his performance in the prison drama Shook.
Directed by Nicholas Hytner, this Chichester Festival production reaches the Bridge Theatre in July but its impact on the thrust stage ought to send ripples now. The first half is quietly electrifying. The second lets it go, first in small deceptive eddies where you sense some calamity, but this is where Beresford’s masterly build of character proves so potent; and explosive. There’s sudden vacuums for Turgenev-like duettings, amplifying humanity in all nine characters. By the finale you know how lives are set but not quite how it’ll play out.
Mark Thompson’s single-set vicarage drawing room, a long table with twelve chairs and two extra (a bit Stations of the Cross, though this is Anglican) seems more a board room where decisions are taken than a place of nourishment. Except drink. Left, there’s drinks; right, a sink and more drinks. Glass doors see all exits and entrances: it seems all have access but none, even Highland, can bide.
This burnished spit of naturalism pushes out all the drama as an image of the church hangs in dark air backstage. Max Narula’s lighting allows a dour suffusion intermitted with stabs of brightness and a piercing morning light for grief.
Yvonne Milnes’ costumes nail the down-at-heel versus church-mouse subfusc, with only Naomi’s peacock beacon of a more joyous world. George Dennis’ sound often resorts to wider unruly voices-off lapping, threatening.
Despite his raffish charm, compassion and public fallibility, Highland’s high-handed and tone-deaf to diverse views, how Sarah Twomey’s Tina Southbury points out Hindus let all forms of grieving or rejoicing have their say. Beresford lets others build before Twomey’s blistering witness stabs home and the play begins to release her grief in a vertiginous performance.
There’s room too for Hermione Gulliford’s Janet Oram, a counsellor at the sharp end of tolerance, who in a solitary moment reaches out to a woman who regards her as her enemy. Mary’s very different to Holly Atkins’ policewoman Joy Sampson who like her has seen everything with something now to look forward to. Hytner moves these duets – all of which amplify the community’s fraught intimacy – at a sudden lick, with crisp exits and scenes. It’s perfect pacing that never allows the play’s broad sweep here to dawdle.
Every actor’s pitch-perfect in this production; every scene unfolds more about their characters.
Vicarages are genteel-poor. It both welcomes a riven community on terms of shabby faux-equality; and in Highland embodies the establishment’s easy way of lecturing it too. The Brexit word uttered just once, unleashes all undercurrents, so it’s no surprise too when the most wildly intolerant of all characters flips over into a very different Christianity.
It’s a vision of judgement from within, but its judgments are as intolerant as the political populists who, skewering the poor, whip them into finding scapegoats. You feel Highland’s for the high-jump as just one more release-valve against the establishment encouraging that very scapegoating. Enemies from within, but enemy of the people too. It’s an Ibsenite play with Chekhovian characters.
This doesn’t allow Beresford – who really pulls the rug out in Act Two – easy solutions. The surprise that proves a release only resolves feeling but we know by the end decisions are made, lives darkened or occasionally lightened. It’s a perfectly freighted denouement, each character pitched with just enough choice to make us wonder what life, not Beresford will do with them. Outstanding play of the year so far.