“We have just elected our first African-American President
‘Let’s see what happens in the long run…'”
It is tempting to think that this revival of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s 2009 play Apologia was mooted simply so that the above line could get the laughs it richly deserves for its prescience. As it is, Jamie Lloyd has fashioned it into the vehicle that has tempted Stockard Channing back into the West End for the first time in 25 years or so (although she did make it to the Almeida in for Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing).
Perhaps the word should be refashioned, as the play has been subtly adapted to make its central character an American (I find myself entirely intrigued about the process of this happening – rewrites over accents) but what a character she is. Kristin Miller is celebrating both the publication of a memoir about her career as an eminent art historian and her birthday but gathering folk around the dinner table proves far from a game of happy families.
For her book fails to mention either of her sons, Peter and Simon, and a life of pioneering political activism has created a marvellously fearsome persona. It is her sons’ partners – a soap actress and a Christian – who initially attract her derision, with the kind of withering put-downs any Dowager would pay good money for. But we soon discover the deep-lying cracks that stem from her losing custody of the boys at a young age.
Channing delivers Kristin’s ferociousness perfectly. Whip-sharp lines are underscored with scathing stares and so she enlivens the overused trope of the dinner party no end (qv Dessert most recently). Freema Agyeman does her best with the relatively thankless part of the actress Claire but Laura Carmichael is a real stand-out as Trudi, initially seeming little more than a whipping-dog for Kristin, we gradually see her get the measure of her host without ever losing respect for her.
For as monstrous as she might seem, there’s empathy for this woman too, a deep understanding of the losses and sacrifices she has endured, the full acceptance of which she is still coming to terms with. We see this most affectingly in her interaction with younger son Simon, in the form of a piercingly good monologue from Joseph Millson (who actually doubles as both sons) even if there’s something a touch underexplored in the choices Kristin made at this crucial juncture in everyone’s life.
Still, Lloyd directs with a blissfully straightforward clarity on the lovely detail of Soutra Gilmour’s country kitchen set, and it is a play that is bitingly, caustically funny again and again – the lead-up into the interval is as funny as the West End gets at the moment. And Desmond Barrit as Kristin’s wise-cracking pal Hugh gets many a bon mot, balancing high camp with real heart. Perhaps not a perfect play, this Apologia remains a high quality piece of theatre and one which I hugely enjoyed.