There are worse things you could do than spend a sunny August afternoon at Studio One at The Trafalgar Studios, former home of Whitehall farce forever associated with the late Lord Brian Rix. But this was not an occasion when trousers were dropped or embarrassed spouses exited via the French windows.
Apologia holds a magnifying glass to the relationship between a mother and her sons, their lovers, and one of her oldest friends. The action takes place at Kristin’s birthday dinner party somewhere in the English countryside in 2009, a significant year in terms of geo-politics and economics. The setting provides a couple of “benefit of hindsight” moments from then to now, with some well-sourced props such as a copy of The Guardian and the Dualit kettle/toaster combo which was popular at that time.
The programme helpfully defines an apologia, which is rooted in rhetoric. Here, it refers to Kristin’s recently-published memoir, a renowned art historian and lifelong social activist and campaigner, played by Stockard Channing, a veteran of stage, screen and film. For some of us, she will always be the rebellious Rizzo in Grease or the indomitable First Lady Abbey Bartlet in The West Wing.
Channing’s performance brings to mind her role as the ambitious corporate climber Julie in the award-winning film The Business of Strangers, in which an older woman is forced to confront her past and justify her personal sacrifices for professional success. Her stagecraft is undeniable, and she delivers her monologues with force and pathos. However, Kristin lacks empathy, which is compounded by her inability to pass up the opportunity to put down those she regards as her intellectual or ethical inferior. Furthermore, Ms Channing is not really convincing as a child of the 60s.
It is probably no accident that copies of the script are available for sale, maybe to help the audience to understand the multiple cultural references. There are some excellent moments reminiscent of a comedy of manners and great one-line zingers peppered throughout the play. We’ll never get the phrases “lucky girl” or “Enjoy Thursday!” again without grinning.
An area of difficulty are the at-times clunky tropes and metaphors employed. The gift of an African tribal mask to Kristin acts as a proxy for the mask she has worn (chosen to wear?) throughout her adult life. She is a confirmed atheist, yet her sons are called Simon and Peter. Reference is made to her life’s work as a “vocation” and she deploys religious imagery, most notably her interpretation of Giotto’s Pietà yet she eschews all notion of the existence of a God or higher being and belittles those who have religious beliefs.
Particular mention should go to Freema Agyeman and Laura Carmichael, who play the partners of Kristin’s sons. Agyeman as the sassy, ambitious soap opera actress Claire who goes straight to the heart of Kristin’s problematic relationship with her son Simon. Carmichael plays Trudi, the sweet and guileless Minnesotan girlfriend of Kristin’s son Peter. As the newcomer to this nest of vipers, Trudi acts as a cipher for the audience, who recoil at the same time as her at Kristin’s sarcasm, disdain and downright rudeness. A pity that both these roles are caricatures.
As her loyal camp follower Hugh, Desmond Barrit adds humour, colour and insight into Kristin’s lifelong devotion to the cause. Joseph Millson rises to the challenge of playing brothers, thanks to a quick costume change and staging. Shame the brothers are just cardboard cutouts, lacking sympathy.
The set by Soutra Gilmour deserves particular mention. The stage is framed by what could be construed as either a picture frame or a window, so the audience is invited to view or spy on the proceedings which take place in Kristin’s spacious open-plan kitchen. Excellent lighting and sound effects emphasised the stormy night and the dawn of the day.
Ok, here’s the rub. Would we recommend this? After all, it’s already selling well. Honestly, we don’t know. To quote Julie Walters in Mamma Mia! “It’s very Greek, isn’t it…”
There are worse things you can do. But we wonder if there are better shows to view.
Apologia is at The Trafalgar Studios, London, until 18 November 2017.