'Apologia': Theater Review

APOLOGIA-Freema Agyeman, Laura Carmichael, Joseph Millson, Desmond Baritt, Stockard Channing- Production Images - Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of MARC BRENNER
Sorry, not sorry.

Stockard Channing stars as a tough-minded radical intellectual in Alexi Kaye Campbell's drama, directed by Jamie Lloyd.

Prolific theater director Jamie Lloyd (Doctor Faustus, The Maids) returns to Trafalgar Studios, his eponymous company's home venue, with a new production of British playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell's 2009 contemporary kitchen-sink drama Apologia, achieving an only partial victory. Although this production was presumably arranged in part as a bejeweled opportunity for Stockard Channing to give a diamond-hard turn as an eminent 1960s radical at odds with her grown sons, the star seemed a little off her game on press night, out of sync with the rest of the cast, even if you allow for the character's much remarked-upon self-absorption.

Things improved in the second act, but ultimately the performances that impressed most were those from Laura Carmichael as an earnest Christian outsider and Joseph Millson in a dual role, playing the central character's sons. Although the text by Campbell (best known for The Pride, which Lloyd also directed, and the screenplay for Simon Curtis' Woman in Gold) is studded with wry, crowd-tickling one-liners, the by-the-numbers study of cultural clash often feels clunky, like a mid-market riff on a David Hare theme, but with a slightly camper, younger sensibility.

All the action unfolds in the wood-and-wicker countryside kitchen of Kristin (Channing), an American ("by birth, not by choice," she explains) who has been living in the U.K. since the 1960s. Known as much for her academic study of early Renaissance painter Giotto as for her outspoken leftist views, Kristin represents a certain type of feisty public intellectual that a British theatergoing audience would immediately recognize, sort of a cross between feminist Germaine Greer and art historian John Berger. On this particular day in 2009 (Barack Obama is in the White House), it's Kristin’s birthday, age unspecified, and she anticipates the arrival of her two grown sons Peter and Simon (both played by Millson), with their respective partners, Trudi (Downton Abbey’s Carmichael, who appeared in The Maids for Lloyd) and Claire (Freema Agyeman).

As with The Pride, which compared and contrasted gay identity in the 1950s with the contemporary era, Campbell takes pains to acknowledge both the good and bad sides of different generations. Clearly, we're meant to admire the intellectual rigor and passionate idealism of Kristin and, to a lesser extent, her zinger-dishing gay best friend Hugh (Desmond Barrit), while sharing their despair at the materialism of kids today, like Peter with his job at a bank and soap actor Claire with her £2,000 white dress.

On the other hand, the Baby Boomers' devotion to their own self-actualization came at a price, the drama argues. Both Peter and Simon, the latter on the verge of a nervous breakdown, are riddled with anger and bitterness at what they consider their mother's "abandonment" of them, especially her failure to try and regain custody when their late father stole them away from her in the '70s. Moreover, Kristin may despise American Trudi's Christian values, but even Kristin can see that the young woman has kindness in her heart, and predicts she'll be a good mother one day.

Carmichael, who nearly nails the American accent (despite a little regional wandering), serves up a just-so portion of chirpy optimism, innocence and barely stifled judgment; she adroitly hits the marks each time in moments when her golly-gee-whiz interjections are meant to punctuate Kristin's endless monologues of withering disdain and sarcasm.

Channing, always a dab hand at this sort of patrician hauteur, sculpts her delivery well and underplays the cruelty, almost to the point where she seems excessively stiff and not as at home in her own skin as one would expect from the character as written. She projects Kristin's intelligence with ease, and there's no gainsaying the power she brings to a scene where she simply reacts with dread and horror to a long monologue from Millson as Simon in Act Two. Nevertheless, a vague sense lingers that she's not a perfect fit for the part, and looks just a little too made-up in the middle of the afternoon for an aging hippie.

Likewise, the casting of Agyeman is also slightly problematic, not because the actor isn't perfectly competent and credible as a glamorous TV star in a show about fashion. But the fact that Agyeman is a woman of color undermines some of the dialogue, making the bitchy asides Kristin lobs in her direction seem borderline racist and classist in a way the author probably didn't intend. And like all the characters in play, she's given to excessively highfalutin turns of phrase, for instance when she explains that for "much of my life, I've been running away from unpaid bills and stifled sobs." Now that's a soap opera-worthy line, although it's played entirely for pathos here.  

While it feels like the text and production are straining to put the women center stage with their showy lines and declamatory suffering, the male characters are more credible and complex, if less obviously sympathetic. Barrit could dish out Hugh's withering patter with his eyes closed, but he provides a nice steady baseline for the rest of the ensemble to work against.

Millson shines, however, as the troubled Peter and the downright broken Simon, blood-stained and battered to the core. Since they're not meant to be twins, it's not exactly clear why Lloyd has chosen to cast just one actor in both parts, but Millson makes the choice work and seem like more than just a cost-cutting exercise.

Venue: Trafalgar Studios, London
Cast: Stockard Channing, Freema Agyeman, Desmond Barrit, Laura Carmichael, Joseph Millson
Playwright: Alexi Kaye Campbell
Director: Jamie Lloyd
Set & costume designer: Soutra Gilmour
Lighting designer: Jon Clark
Sound designers: Ben Ringham, Max Ringham
Presented by Howard Panter for Trafalgar Entertainment Group, DB Productions, The Dodgers