BWW Review: APOLOGIA, Trafalgar Studios
Back in 2009, Alexi Kaye Campbell followed up his bold first play The Pride with Apologia, which takes the well-trodden path of a fraught family reunion where past grievances stalk the present. If more conventional, it's still an enjoyable combination of big ideas, sharp comedy and a pervading sense of loss.
The occasion is the birthday of Sixties firebrand Kristin, a hotshot art historian whose absentee parenting is bitterly resented by her two adult sons, banker Peter and failed novelist Simon. Also in attendance are the pair's respective girlfriends, American physio Trudi and soap star Claire, and Hugh, Kristin's flamboyantly gay pal from her hippy activist days.
The dinner party quickly turns acrimonious, with socialist feminist Kristin interrogating the life choices of international financier Peter ("Still raping the Third World?") and his newfound religious interest - he and Trudi met at a Christian prayer meeting - and Claire's decision to swap Ibsen for vacuous telly and a bigger salary to spend on clothes. But Kristin's soon on trial herself thanks to her recent memoir Apologia - meaning defence, not apology - which fails to mention her children at all.
The play has been slightly revised for this revival to accommodate the casting of Stockard Channing in the lead role, producing some interesting new material. Though both American expats, Kristin's audacious decision to ditch Connecticut and explore liberated Europe is contrasted with Trudi's version of travel, in which she accompanies Peter on work trips and is nervous of leaving the hotel room on her own.
There's also a wry one-liner that will doubtless grow in significance given the current White House ructions, as Trudi gushes about a brave new America following Obama's election and Kristin retorts "Let's wait and see how things turn out in the long run".
And yet, oddly for a play so alert to how context shapes meaning, it feels rather overtaken by events. Younger people's current political and social engagement makes Kristin's accusation of subsequent generations' apathy ring hollow, and highlights a flaw in Campbell's lengthy but somewhat repetitive text: her much-vaunted convictions are never really defined.
References to Marx, Vietnam and CND suggest more of a culture of protest than specific motivations, leaving Kristin's ideology - meaningful enough to overtake personal relationships - too opaque for us to really engage with. Her moral judgement of a generation impoverished by Baby Boomers like herself thus reads as crueller than perhaps intended. Of course many artists still want to change the world, but try doing that and getting on the housing ladder...
However, the second half also strives to mellow these fascinatingly spiky characters, with confessional monologues revealing the economic anxiety that contributes to Claire's materialism, the psychology of Trudi's evangelism, and the late husband - a shadowy plot device of a character - whose malicious behaviour forced Kristin's hand. Rather than owning uncomfortable choices, they're modified or softened.
Channing is nevertheless supremely watchable as Kristin, able to convey intense irritation through the tightening of her jaw or semi-masking sarcasm with a terrifying smile. She runs intellectual rings around everyone, beautifully articulating her adoration of Giotto as a revolutionary humanist who spoke to the common man, but conveying a deep well of hurt and conflicted remorse when forced to confront her fractured relationships.
Joseph Millson very effectively plays both brothers, defined in different ways by rebellion against their mother: straitlaced Peter, tried to breaking point by this new conflict, and sensitive, depressive Simon, whose unburdening forms a hypnotic nocturnal scene. The sassy gay best friend is now a hoary archetype, but Desmond Barrit is still enormous fun as the one-liner-cracking Hugh.
However, it's the women who really stand out. Laura Carmichael is superb as "Minnesotan peach tree" Trudi, whose people-pleasing positivity and inane New Age platitudes give way to real compassion, while Freema Agyeman's Claire is a strong foil for Channing, rigorously defending her choices even as she struggles to accept them herself. (It's not a soap - it's "a serialised drama that happens to follow the trajectories of various people's lives"! And it's totally subversive!)
Jamie Lloyd's production is uncharacteristically unobtrusive - suited to the naturalistic material, but perhaps lacking some of his provocative spark. Soutra Gilmour's set likewise evokes Kristin's spacious, upscale rural home (a sly rebuke to her professed communism), and Jon Clark's lighting nicely supports the moodier middle section. More radical in theme than in form, but a stellar cast makes it well worth coming to dinner.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner