The Southbury Child (Festival Theatre, Chichester)
Verdict: Facetious but touching
Who would not wish to see The Crown’s Alex Jennings playing a small-town vicar?
Together 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 recent play, we’re also meant to assume his Devonshire pastor as a troubled boozer and a sexual philanderer.
His even greater problem, though, is the mother of a dead child who desires to have Disney balloons at her daughter’s funeral. She longs to have fun her daughter’s short life; he feels death must be looked directly in the attention.
Either way, I could not consider such a benign old stick would decide to take Custer’s Last Stand on a difficulty like this. Inevitably, his hard line turns the community against him — nevertheless it also struck me as too far out of character to be credible.
Who would not wish to see The Crown’s Alex Jennings playing a small-town vicar? Together 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 on 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 need worked.
As a substitute, his Alan Bennettish dialogue lets David off the hook, with oodles of very English irony and witticisms that defuse the stress (Bennett, against this, has all the time been wary of such overtly emotional material).
Jennings matches spiritual unease with flashes of anguish, despite reaching too often for an inexpensive Scotch or a wry remark. Particularly, he rues his failure to watch the primary rule of ecclesiastical law: ‘Don’t f*** the flock.’
Phoebe Nicholls has the patience of a saint as his wife, someway 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 (comparable to her gag about how she has the dress sense of a Lithuanian hooker) she seems like an authorial voice.
Jack Greenlees, because the gay, pin-up curate, ticks the remaining boxes of church and sexual politics. The locals are chiefly represented by Josh Finan, because the cheerful thicko brother of the deceased child.
Amusingly, he’s wont to ask deep, existential questions; yet he’s also given to nasty troublemaking, for which he’s never held to account.
Because of considered one of his pranks within the second half, Beresford’s plot veers away from what must be the powerful story of the titular child. Indeed, Sarah Twomey as that child’s mother, who must be the play’s moral and emotional conscience, is reduced to an awkwardly poignant side show.
Despite these flaws, there’s much to enjoy on 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 an excellent comfort to the attention.
But with fewer gags and a less facetious tone, it might have been a greater play: capturing the very real pain of a Church and country which — as Beresford has spotted — are within 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 Modified 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 color. It is a Six for six-year-olds, a herstory lesson and a call to arms: do not be afraid to do what’s right, do not be fragile like a flower but fragile like a bomb.
Talented playwright/lyricist Chris Bush puts a young girl on the centre of Kate Pankhurst’s picture book. Jade is left behind on a college 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 within the deep end by Olympic swimmer Gertrude Ederle.
Emmeline Pankhurst — a distant relative of the creator — reminds her that with only half as many ladies as men in Parliament, the work isn’t finished.
I’m still singing because of Miranda Cooper who gives the show the poptastic sound of her hits for the Sugababes and Girls Aloud.
But it surely’s not all upbeat. In a very poignant moment, Rosa Parks hugs Jade and Anne Frank, telling them that every one she did was refuse to offer up her seat on a bus to a white man. Yet it modified 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 crucial condescending theatrical homilies I even have ever had the misfortune to endure. American author Lucas Hnath has deigned to revisit Henrik Ibsen’s Nineteenth-century Norwegian melodrama a couple of woman who walks out on her husband and kids, and treat it as a chance 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 log off on the divorce he promised 15 years earlier.
But her ultimatum isn’t delivered until she has first lectured his bewildered housekeeper (June Watson) on how and why marriage destroys women’s lives.
She then activates her still traumatised husband and explains to him, all once again, why he’s a hopeless human being and why their marriage was rotten to the core.
Any try and 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 not less than 3 times that length, because of Dumezweni’s Nora.
Her ultimatum isn’t 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 disclose a set of… a number of chairs on a crusty orange floor.
The production also combines Hnath’s tuneless modern profanities with starchy period costumes, so he can remember to talk all the way down to the benighted past within the language of four-letter enlightenment.
Personally, I could locate no real interest in any of the story’s potential outcomes bar one: getting home.
Meanwhile one other haute-bourgeois theatrical salon, the Royal Court, has very nearly achieved the difficult task of disappearing up its own fundament.
The occasion is a hoax of a recent 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 might be hilarious to present her fictional docu-drama a couple of young couple falling right 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 result in them each being…murdered.
The entire set-up is totally phoney and essentially the most real thing within the show is a scene during lockdown during which the couple wash their groceries.
Jake Davies, because the mendacious young handyman, is inscrutably nonchalant, however the show’s best asset is the all the time watchable Siena Kelly because the young geriatric nurse. She is a fizzy young actor who goes, via childbirth, from carefree flirt to radicalised neurotic.
Priyanga Burford gets the hole task of playing the author-narrator who maintains the pretence that that is a crucial and dangerous investigation.
Sadly, the world is stuffed with genuinely necessary and dangerous investigations that Kirkwood might higher have pursued.
Having tricked us into the theatre, director Lucy Morrison takes the sensible precaution of not providing an interval within the two-hour deposition, to thwart the audience scarpering.