Benet Catty Productions

Apologia (WE 2017)

Sep 1, 2017

Trafalgar Studios

If you want to see people you know from the telly live on stage then the London theatre offers plenty of choice at the moment. Angels in America has Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane and Russell Tovey among the A-list cast of the great masterpiece. F Murray Abraham is bringing his first-rate charisma to a third-rate play in The Mentor. Andrew Scott is wowing audiences as Hamlet. And now, ten years since her last appearance at the Almeida, Stockard Channing returns to the London stage.



Channing is known by many of us as the first lady Abbey Bartlet in The West Wing and by everyone as Rizzo in Grease all those years ago. In Apologia - Alexi Kaye Campbell\\\\\\\'s funny, moving, richly entertaining play, being revived for the first time - she brings to the stage what she offers so brilliantly on television: understated strength and emotional vulnerability.



Kristin Miller (Channing) is hosting her two adult sons at her country home for a roast dinner. She is American but has lived here forever and been successful as an art historian. She has just published a memoir in which her children do not appear. Her protests that the book was about her professional existence and not her personal life do not impress them, and the tension they feel towards her is magnified by the tensions felt by their other halves, the religious Christian girlfriend of one and the egotistic soap actress partner of the initially absent other.



Like so many plays, it\\\'s a \\\"family sit down to dinner, all hell breaks loose and then they leave\\\\\\\" kind of show. But what Apologia lacks in novelty it more than makes up for with its wit and intelligence and with the outstanding performances of its ensemble cast.



Like the character she plays, Channing\\\\\\\'s presence does all the work. Hers is no barnstorming performance but a subtle portrait of a woman who has lead a life of great passions (political and artistic) which, in various ways, have caused schisms with her grown up children and her sense of herself. Channing is deadpan funny and, in the play\\\'s closing moments, deeply affecting.



Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith Crawley in Downton Abbey) is particularly good as Trudi, her mixture of charm and defense revealing a character who feels judged from the moment she gives a gift to her boyfriend\\\\\\\'s mother and realises that friendship between them is not going to come easily or at all. Freema Agyeman (late of Doctor Who) similarly provides a believable mix of self-confidence and inferiority as the other girlfriend making lots of money from inferior art in a popular soap opera, and whose life is going to take on a soap opera twist of its own.



In a striking long scene in the second act, Joseph Millson and Channing do tremendous work as another son comes to visit, asks some questions and then is gone by morning. And Desmond Barritt, a stalwart of the London stage, gets all his laughs in the lighter comic role although his more serious defense of his long-time friend to her son in the later stages rang false with me.



As always, director Jamie Lloyd gives the show great character and pace matched with considerable visual interest on Soutra Gilmour\\\\\\\'s gorgeous set and with Jon Clark\\\\\\\'s beautiful lighting which dynamically illustrates the warm but heated atmosphere of the funnier first half and the darker more isolated tone of the second act.



For all its resemblances to some of the plays of Edward Albee in its high-intellect icy central character and its upper middle class setting, Apologia is not an uncovered masterpiece or a play to change the way you feel about the world. But it is a constantly engaging exploration of how we consider value in our lives and families (variously money, fame, religion, intellect, family) and how limiting they all are if pursued to the exclusion of the others. As we\\\\\\\'re told in the play, an apologia is not the same thing as an apology; yet it\\\'\\\'s the latter that several of the characters seem to want most. But while it\\\\\\\'s possible to apologise for what you\\\'ve done, it\\\\\\\'s not easy to apologise for who you are. And in many ways that is what the characters are demanding of each other or defending themselves against offering to others.



Apologia is one of the most entertaining nights out currently available in London, and I make no apology for recommending it.


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