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The Southbury Child (Festival Theatre, Chichester)
Verdict: Facetious but touching
Who wouldn’t want to see The Crown’s Alex Jennings playing a small-town vicar?
With his kind, patrician face, he looks heaven sent for the role of the Reverend David Highland.
Yet in Stephen Beresford’s amusing, and eventually sad new play, we are also meant to imagine his Devonshire pastor as a troubled boozer and a sexual philanderer.
His even bigger problem, though, is the mother of a dead child who wants to have Disney balloons at her daughter’s funeral. She longs to celebrate her daughter’s short life; he feels death needs to be looked directly in the eye.
Either way, I couldn’t believe such a benign old stick would choose to take Custer’s Last Stand on an issue like this. Inevitably, his hard line turns the community against him — but it also struck me as too far out of character to be credible.
Who wouldn’t want to see The Crown’s Alex Jennings playing a small-town vicar? With his kind, patrician face, he looks heaven sent for the role of the Reverend David Highland
Beresford has been much feted since his Chekhovian drama The Last Of The Haussmans was staged at the National Theatre in 2012.
Had he revealed a higher-stakes personal dilemma lurking behind Highland’s decision, or offered a more in-depth examination of the unhappy vicar’s conscience, it might have worked.
Instead, his Alan Bennettish dialogue lets David off the hook, with oodles of very English irony and witticisms that defuse the tension (Bennett, by contrast, has always been wary of such overtly emotional material).
Jennings matches spiritual unease with flashes of anguish, despite reaching too often for a cheap Scotch or a wry remark. In particular, he rues his failure to observe the first rule of ecclesiastical law: ‘Don’t f*** the flock.’
Phoebe Nicholls has the patience of a saint as his wife, somehow holding the household together; while Jo Herbert, as his sexually frustrated teacher daughter, dutifully picks up the slack in his parish responsibilities.
It’s left to David’s adopted daughter (Racheal Ofori) — a black, militant atheist — to be more facetious, though at times (such as her gag about how she has the dress sense of a Lithuanian hooker) she sounds like an authorial voice.
Jack Greenlees, as the gay, pin-up curate, ticks the remaining boxes of church and sexual politics. The locals are chiefly represented by Josh Finan, as the cheerful thicko brother of the deceased child.
Amusingly, he is wont to ask deep, existential questions; yet he’s also given to nasty troublemaking, for which he’s never held to account.
Thanks to one of his pranks in the second half, Beresford’s plot veers away from what should be the powerful story of the titular child. Indeed, Sarah Twomey as that child’s mother, who should be the play’s moral and emotional conscience, is reduced to an awkwardly poignant side show.
Despite these flaws, there’s much to enjoy in this vision of a rural community, with its annual festival blessing the town’s river for safety and fecundity (echoes of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem).
Sir Nicholas Hytner’s breezy production skips over the underlying pain. And Mark Thompson’s set of a flagstone vicarage kitchen with a Norman church rearing up beyond is a great comfort to the eye.
But with fewer gags and a less facetious tone, it could have been a better play: capturing the very real pain of a Church and country which — as Beresford has spotted — are in the throes of extremely uncomfortable changes.
From July 1, after its run in Chichester, The Southbury Child will move to The Bridge Theatre in London SE1.
Vibrant history lesson in praise of girl power
Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World (Theatre Royal, Stratford East)
Verdict: Six for six-year-olds
This show is a celebration of girl power over the centuries — in neon colour. It’s a Six for six-year-olds, a herstory lesson and a call to arms: don’t be afraid to do what’s right, don’t be fragile like a flower but fragile like a bomb.
Talented playwright/lyricist Chris Bush puts a young girl at the centre of Kate Pankhurst’s picture book. Jade is left behind on a school trip, alone in a museum hailing heroines from air, land and sea. She is taken up — in every sense — by aviator Amelia Earhart, persuaded to develop her sense and sensibility by Jane Austen, and thrown in the deep end by Olympic swimmer Gertrude Ederle.
Emmeline Pankhurst — a distant relative of the author — reminds her that with only half as many women as men in Parliament, the work is not finished.
I’m still singing thanks to Miranda Cooper who gives the show the poptastic sound of her hits for the Sugababes and Girls Aloud.
But it’s not all upbeat. In a particularly poignant moment, Rosa Parks hugs Jade and Anne Frank, telling them that all she did was refuse to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. Yet it changed the world.
A Doll’s House, Part 2 (Donmar Warehouse, London)
That Is Not Who I Am (Royal Court Theatre, London)
A Doll’s House, Part 2 is one of the most condescending theatrical homilies I have ever had the misfortune to endure. American writer Lucas Hnath has deigned to revisit Henrik Ibsen’s 19th-century Norwegian melodrama about a woman who walks out on her husband and children, and treat it as an opportunity to pontificate on the institution of marriage.
He starts by having Ibsen’s revered feminist heroine Nora (Noma Dumezweni), return to her husband Torvald (Brian F. O’Byrne) to demand that he sign off on the divorce he promised 15 years earlier.
But her ultimatum is not delivered until she has first lectured his bewildered housekeeper (June Watson) on how and why marriage destroys women’s lives.
She then turns on her still traumatised husband and explains to him, all over again, why he is a hopeless human being and why their marriage was rotten to the core.
Any attempt to interrupt her expostulation is greeted with an incredulous scowl. Even her grown-up daughter (Patricia Allison) is patronised as a not-yet-fully-formed ‘mini me’.
For millennia, drama has acquainted heroes and heroines with their shortcomings. Not here. This 95-minute helping of pedagogical self-fortification feels at least three times that length, thanks to Dumezweni’s Nora.
Her ultimatum is not delivered until she has first lectured his bewildered housekeeper (June Watson) on how and why marriage destroys women’s lives
She is so supremely self-important that not even the prospect of prison or penury affronts her. She is immune from theatrical prosecution.
Pompously reporting her byzantine love life, her condescending coup de grace is to reject the divorce she’s been demanding all along on the grounds that she now considers it… condescending!
Condescension, though, is structural to James Macdonald’s production, from the moment the roof covering the stage is solemnly raised to reveal a set of… a few chairs on a crusty orange floor.
The production also combines Hnath’s tuneless modern profanities with starchy period costumes, so he can be sure to talk down to the benighted past in the language of four-letter enlightenment.
Personally, I could locate no interest in any of the story’s potential outcomes bar one: getting home.
Meanwhile another haute-bourgeois theatrical salon, the Royal Court, has very nearly accomplished the difficult task of disappearing up its own fundament.
The occasion is a hoax of a new play by Lucy Kirkwood, which creates a frisson of danger by pretending to be a play by ‘Dave Davison’ about online identity theft.
Kirkwood seems to think it would be hilarious to present her fictional docu-drama about a young couple falling into a void of isolation and deep state paranoia as an undercover probe.
The play charts the course of the young couple from their meeting, in a restaurant in 2011, to moving in together and having a baby, before his conspiracy theory posts on YouTube during lockdown lead to them both being…murdered.
The whole set-up is completely phoney and the most real thing in the show is a scene during lockdown in which the couple wash their groceries.
Jake Davies, as the mendacious young handyman, is inscrutably nonchalant, but the show’s greatest asset is the always watchable Siena Kelly as the young geriatric nurse. She is a fizzy young actor who goes, via childbirth, from carefree flirt to radicalised neurotic.
Priyanga Burford gets the hollow task of playing the author-narrator who maintains the pretence that this is an important and dangerous investigation.
Sadly, the world is full of genuinely important and dangerous investigations that Kirkwood might better have pursued.
Having tricked us into the theatre, director Lucy Morrison takes the sensible precaution of not providing an interval in the two-hour deposition, to thwart the audience scarpering.