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To grieve, or not to grieve (with balloons)? – that is the question

To grieve, or not to grieve (with balloons)? – that is the question

Anna Wheeler explores grief, struggling vicars and balloons in her review of Stephen Beresford’s latest play, The Southbury Child. 02/08/2022

Vicars are also human beings.  Other humans are keen to put them on pedestals and then enjoy pushing them off the moment they err into less than seemingly the right behaviour. In The Southbury Child, vicar David Highland has demons – he has been unfaithful in his marriage, and he is a functioning alcoholic.  One gets the sense the community ‘put up’ with him as the person who happens to run the church so ‘ends up’ as the one to run the funerals, and other churchy type stuff. He’s as staid as the building itself – in competition with the local more dynamic evangelical establishment.  But he is kind and wants to do the right thing not through any sense of entitlement or power, but because of his beliefs and how he thinks people should be valued during, and after, life.  As the play opens, he is discussing the funeral arrangements for a young child, Taylor Southbury, with her uncle, Lee.  Lee – and Taylor’s mum, Tina – want balloons.  David does not.  As an audience member, I started to think – who has the most demons?   

Whatever you think of Alex Jennings’ portrayal of David, and whether or not you have empathy with what David does, you are faced with a man who is fully aware he has failed and makes no excuses for himself.  Against rampant opposition, he holds to his no balloons at Taylor’s funeral policy.  And he justifies his position against the general sanitization of death which can easily occur.  To him, balloons can give the optics of showbiz – and ‘death is death’, not showbiz.  

Stephen Beresford’s play holds the audience fast between heartbreak and humour whilst themes of forgiveness, death, conscience, belonging, tolerance, and the meaning of faith itself, are played out on stage.  Indeed, there is a sardonic remark in the play, made by the vicar himself, about dressing up in the Church of England’s garments (a robe).  Actors dress up to tell us stories about real life – and many would say that those inside the church do the same.  Whatever your stance, the issues are all real even if you think the platform on which they are explored is not.  The fact is people turn to ‘the church’ at life changing moments and ‘the church’ is made of individuals who are going through them too.   

Ironically, this vicar’s reason for thinking what he does is brutally de–robed by his parishioners (and has been by some critics of the play).  It’s easy for them, and us, to be against him – although I wasn’t.  Nor was I against those who opposed him.  These are all characters, inside and outside the church, trying to find their way.  The issues they all faced, particularly the planning of a funeral, are ones that have, and will, affect me one day.  I doubt anyone wants to face a dogmatic, bloody–minded vicar (which some critics have called Jennings’ portrayal – I disagree).  But nor do I imagine, would people wish a vicar to be so focussed on the celebration of life that their grief and loss can’t even be acknowledged.  Clearly balloons mean different things to different people, and the play is far deeper than whether they are good or bad.  They float away; grief and the mess of the human condition does not.    

As Beresford says, it’s not fashionable to think about faith and belief; it’s even less trendy for the theatre to talk about it and in the compassionate, honest way that this play does.  It is a comedy, and you will laugh out loud at David’s knowingly whimsical vision of heaven, but I challenge you not to simultaneously weep, also perhaps out loud, over its message of love and loss. 

The Southbury Child is on until 27th August at The Bridge Theatre, London. 

Photo by Cody Giles on Unsplash

Anna Wheeler

Anna Wheeler

Anna was formerly Operations and Events Manager at Theos. She was a part of the Theos team from 2015 to 2023. She read Theology at Heythrop College, University of London, and later gained a PG Diploma in Theatre.

Watch, listen to or read more from Anna Wheeler

Posted 2 August 2022

Church, Church of England, Death, Grief


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