the woman who woke Peter Hall up from his nap that time, although she’s got a bit better at the acting since then. Following The Pride a couple of years ago, Jamie Lloyd revives another Alexi Kaye Campbell play at Trafalgar 1, with Stockard Channing taking on the role of esteemed art historian and 1960s political activist Kristin in Apologia. The setup is the well-worn dinner-party-from-hell format, as Kristin hosts family and friends to celebrate both her birthday, and the publication of her latest book, also titled Apologia. This one’s marketed as a memoir of her life, which makes the fact that it doesn’t even mention the existence of her two sons (both played by Joseph Millson) an omission which seems to distill their relationship.
Peter, the eldest, has already disappointed his mother by becoming a banker who works primarily in Africa, making him part of the problem as far as she’s concerned. Now he annoys her further by finding religion and introducing his new girlfriend, Trudi (Laura Carmichael,) the kind of enthusiastic American Christian Kristin left America to avoid.
Meanwhile younger son Simon’s mental health has always been on the fragile side, and the implicit rejection in the memoir has made things worse – he’s sent his actress girlfriend Claire (Freema Agyeman) to the dinner with a promise to join them later on, but so far there’s no sign of him. Inevitably the evening ends up bringing to a head all the family grievances but things are fractious from the start: The oven’s broken so they need to order a takeaway, and Kristin is abrasive to both sons’ girlfriends – interrogating the newcomer while badgering Claire over her decision to work on a soap.
I have a feeling Lloyd’s starry production is doing a lot to elevate a play that’s fairly mixed: In part a dark comedy, Campbell’s script is on the money where the jokes are concerned, with a lot of strong one-liners and vicious putdowns coming thick and fast. There’s even lines that have gained dark comedy since the play premiered in 2009, with the characters seeing progress in the election of the first black president, and Kristin countering “let’s wait and see what comes next.” But there’s a lot that’s contrived and predictable about the plotting: Claire’s pure-white £2000 designer dress is obviously being set up to be ruined by a spilt drink, while Kristin’s fruity friend Hugh, who’s been with her since their days protesting in the ‘60s, is a bit of a camp archetype, given a bit more depth by the casting of Desmond Barrit. Characters are always wandering off so that a pair can be left on stage alone to have a confrontation, although Lloyd generally has the departing characters suggest they’re doing it on purpose for just that reason.
It’s little touches like this that paper over any cracks, and while weaknesses do appear in retrospect, they don’t matter during the performance itself. Agyeman’s performance is a bit abrasive at first, her character brash with a barely-disguised panic underneath that, but she settles down as the evening goes on; Millson gives a distinct feel to the two very different brothers while Carmichael goes some way to making up for past offenses with a performance matching the others’ level, and making another borderline stereotypical character into the most relatable one onstage.
The star turn doesn’t disappoint either, Channing relishing the chance to play the central monster while backing up the play’s gradual suggestion that her motivations were far from monstrous. There’s typically strong design from Soutra Gilmour, this time in a very detailed kitchen set, while Agyeman’s aforementioned dress convinces as an overpriced designer affair. Apologia isn’t ground-breaking but by West End standards it feels fresh and kept me interested throughout; while Lloyd’s 2017 continues its strong streak of stripping back some of his past excesses to find something a bit more pacy and believable underneath.
Apologia by Alexi Kaye Campbell is booking until the 18th of November at Trafalgar Studio 1.
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.