Review: Apologia at Trafalgar Studios

“The perfect balance between comedy and drama, Apologia is an honourable piece of theatre – and it’s not only the cast that makes it so.”

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Set in the UK in fairly recent times, this is Jamie’s Lloyd’s second take on Alexi Kaye Campbell’s 2009 family drama, and I can confidently say that it’s one of the greatest shows I’ve seen this year. With a healthy balance of comedy and drama, and a captivating cast to boot, the performance had me hooked from the opening moments – and I was lucky enough to see it all from the second row.

Kristin (Stockard Channing), a well-known activist and art historian, has recently released a memoir that has caused great offence to her sons, Peter and Simon, for one reason: she has failed to mention their existence. When Peter (Joseph Millson) shows up at his mother’s quintessential British home with girlfriend Trudi (Laura Carmichael), he’s an ill-disguised ticking time bomb, desperate to confront her over the omission, but refraining from doing so, presumably because it’s her birthday celebration.

This is Trudi and Kristin’s first meeting and Kristin makes little effort to hide her contempt over the fact that her son’s girlfriend in American, despite being American herself. Trudi’s patience with Kristin and the ease with which she counteracts Kristin’s scathing remarks with kindness are perhaps largely down to her Christian beliefs – yet another thing Kristin scoffs at.

Later, we meet Claire (understudy, Isaura Barbé-Brown), Simon’s soap star girlfriend. Instantaneously, we realise she’s another of Kristin’s favourite targets for criticism, although she holds her ground much better than Trudi can, accustomed to tackling her barbs.

Simon (also Joseph Millson), thinner skinned than brother Peter, fails to join his family and flamboyant dinner guest Hugh (Desmond Barrit), and so the awkwardly entertaining evening continues without him.

For the whole of Act One, it’s clear to see how much Channing revels in delivering Kristin’s most biting blows. At points, she looks out into the audience, smirking or fighting to disguise a laugh; I was often unsure whether she was in character or corpsing during these moments as it could quite easily be either of the two, but I loved them nonetheless.

Millson and Carmichael make a sickeningly sweet couple, as they’re supposed to. Trudi’s habit of adding the word ‘sweetie’ to the end of practically every sentence she says to Peter is intentionally irritating – and if anyone can pull it off, it’s Carmichael and her American inflection.

Barbé-Brown does an incredible job of standing in for Freema Agyeman; playing up to Claire’s penchant for arguing that her show is a serial drama rather than a soap, it’s clear that she has fun with the role. The dynamic between her and Carmichael is interesting to watch, as Claire and Trudi – women of a similar age – couldn’t be much further from each other in attitude and aspirations.

Barrit, the one man humour-mill in this show, is amusing, although the character brings little depth to the tale. Hugh is humorous and he knows it, but he serves no purpose other than to crack jokes and very occasionally act as a glowing reference for Kristin when talk turns to the ‘good old days’, when she was heavily involved in activism and hardly involved in her children’s lives.

Act Two sees a shift in focus as Simon makes an appearance. Downtrodden and depressed, most of the stage time in this act is dedicated to Channing and Millson, as Simon recounts an eventful night when his mother forgot to collect him from a train station in Genoa and an unknown man stepped in to pick up her slack.

A stark contrast to what we’ve seen so far, the Kristin unable to climb down from her high horse has been replaced by an emotionally vulnerable fraction of the version of her we saw just half-an-hour before, and… is that regret we can see in her eyes?

She dabs at a wound on Simon’s arm – the only mothering thing she’s done for the duration of the play – anxious for him to reach the end of that story because, if the man at the station did indeed cause him harm, she’s unsure whether she’ll ever be able to forgive herself.

The perfect balance between comedy and drama, Apologia is an honourable piece of theatre – and it’s not only the cast that makes it so. The set was one of the things I loved most about this show. Carefully crafted by Soutra Gilmour, the countryside kitchen is beautifully British and has a way of drawing you right in and making you feel at home. Sitting in the front two rows, you almost feel as though you’re a guest at Kristin’s birthday dinner.

The lighting and sound only add to the ambience, too – the soft light emitted from the fridge during the opening scene adds intrigue, as we are introduced to Channing’s character incompletely, whereas the harsh rainfall against the back of the set makes good use of pathetic fallacy.

All in all, I found Channing’s return to the West End after some 25 years of absence to be a triumphant one. Undoubtedly my favourite performer in the unapologetic Apologia, I for one hope she won’t wait too long before treading the boards on a West End stage once again.

Approx. running time: 2 hours
Date attended: October 21
Understudies: Isaura Barbé-Brown as Claire
Closing date: November 18