Lloyd Evans

Hytner hits the bull’s eye: The Southbury Child, at the Bridge Theatre, reviewed

Plus: a new version of The Seagull that becomes a punch-up between a faddish director and a timeless genius

Hytner hits the bull's eye: The Southbury Child, at the Bridge Theatre, reviewed
Alex Jennings as Fr David Highland, who is accompanied by a cast of enjoyable minor characters in The Southbury Child. Credit: Manuel Harlan
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The Southbury Child

Bridge Theatre, until 27 August

The Seagull

Harold Pinter Theatre, until 10 September

The Southbury Child is a comedy drama set in east Devon featuring a distressed vicar, Fr David, with a complex addiction history. Alex Jennings stars with his habitual urbane charm. Is there perhaps a credibility gap there? Jennings seems far too decent, clever and friendly to be a problem drinker who likes nothing better than a fling with a randy wench. And, more crucially, he doesn’t face the fallout from his days of boozing and bedhopping. His dramatic task is unconnected to his personal flaws.

A little girl has died in controversial circumstances and her parents want balloons at her funeral. No way, says the vicar. The family fight back. Civil war erupts and Fr David faces dismissal while his newly appointed curate, a gay hunk from Glasgow, tries to take over the parish.

A cast of enjoyable minor characters completes the snapshot of West Country life. There’s an evil but lonely gossip who goes around creating trouble and a motorcycling policewoman who keeps on working despite being heavily pregnant. The posh characters are all educated and articulate while the ooh-arr locals are less inhibited and lacking in intellectual polish. This binary division into toffs and proles seems a little formulaic and yet that’s precisely how villages divide up.

The script by Stephen Beresford is the sort of minor middle England yarn that might have felt dated in the West End a century ago. Which is precisely the point. The show ignores theatrical fashions and pressure groups. It doesn’t preach or grumble or make you feel guilty for not caring enough about people you don’t care about anyway. It offers a parade of charmingly flawed and recognisable characters who deliver a stream of top-quality gags in a familiar dramatic setting. Bull’s-eye. This being a Nicholas Hytner production, the visuals are superb and the performances world-class.

The new version of The Seagull, at the Harold Pinter Theatre, is a punch-up between a faddish director and a timeless genius. The director loses. First the good news. Anya Reiss’s witty modern translation works very well, even though it starts in the middle of Act One and then backtracks. That will baffle anyone unfamiliar with the play. Indira Varma manages to dazzle in the lead role; Daniel Monks, as Konstantin, has a mournful stillness that tugs at the heartstrings; and Tom Rhys Harries turns the shifty and unlikeable Trigorin into a nervously whispering comic marvel. His easy charm is the show’s greatest virtue. Some of the dialogue retains its humour but the passion and the tragic pulse of the play can’t come across because the staging is so stiff and motionless.

This is Chekhov in a straitjacket. The set looks like a container lorry made out of chipboard. And the props have been removed. The gun, the seagull, the fishing rod? All gone. In their place is nothing but dead air because the director knows better than the writer. The poor actors are decked out in drab prisonwear from Primark and they’re forced to sit in green plastic chairs like a bunch of crack addicts confessing their misery at an underfunded rehab centre. Everyone has a microphone taped to their cheek and they’ve been told to murmur and burble their lines – presumably in a bid to create a sense of claustrophobic intimacy. Only Varma (as Irina) flexes her voice properly. Some of the other performers sound concussed or sedated.

And the entire company remains on stage throughout the show which is very unfair on minor players who deserve a bit of time off. And the casting of black actors in the roles of servants creates the unfortunate impression that the play is about rich white people being waited on by African-Caribbean menials. That jars very badly.

The director’s eccentric minimalism isn’t just banal and unoriginal. It’s an affront to theatre lovers. This monkish experiment succeeds in erasing Chekhov’s finest asset – his naturalism. He had an unrivalled ability to write dialogue that sounds like real speech being delivered by real people but that precious gift has been violated. And the abilities of the actors have been villainously traduced. Performers like to ply their trade on two feet and to pace the boards. Costumes and props are not disposable supplements but tools used by talented performers to explore aspects of their character and to bring a scene to life.

When not required on stage, actors should withdraw to the dressing room where they can moan to their agents over the phone or swap yarns about Larry, Johnny and Ralphie. These are more than just idle amusements. Backstage gossip sustains the theatre’s collective memory and fortifies the fragile threads that link the past, the present and the future. Jamie Lloyd’s disrespectful vandalism is a conspiracy against the acting profession. They should rise up and send this contrarian wrecker into exile.