The Southbury Child: This is what happened when a vicar refused to allow Disney balloons at a small child's funeral - Review, Chichester Festival Theatre

A vicar’s decision on the funeral arrangements of a small child goes down like a lead balloon with her family and the local community.

David Highland (Alex Jennings) is an Anglican priest whose personal morality is peppered with as many holes as a woodworm infested church roof rafter.

He is rarely seen without a glass of whisky and his faithfulness to his wife is not beyond reproach.

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But in Stephen Beresford’s new play the turning point for his otherwise flawed conscience comes with the funeral of a child.

The Southbury Child at Chichester Festival Theatre

The family want Disney balloons drifting up from the pews and adorning the pulpit – while he remains resolute that such a celebration of a young life would be in some way to diminish the church itself.

Meanwhile the family and the community launch a huge campaign seeking to either alter his opinion or change their man at the altar.

The drama that follows tears the vicar’s life apart – challenging not just his beliefs but his marriage, his friends, and his entire way of life.

But it is littered with contradictions.

This is a man of the cloth who is far more likely to embrace the wishes of the girl’s mum than reject them; and this is a community whose parochial church council might adopt a more conservative approach.

This lack of credibility is not helped by an absence of natural empathy.

Oh how much better it might have been if we were cheering on a vicar determined to celebrate the life of this young girl in the way her mum wanted; who challenged the traditional and the conventional in just the way that Jesus might have done.

Of course, Jennings is a genius. He pitches his performance with perfect skill.

There is a mesmerising charm to his measured gentleness.

So yes we pity him; yes even at times we share in his pain.

But when the consequences of his actions and his decisions become clear it is difficult to feel compassion.

The Southbury Child runs at Chichester Festival Theatre until 25 June and at The Bridge Theatre from 1 July – 27 August.